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Month: October 2014

Belle Shea | Paris, France | Post 3

Belle Shea | Paris, France | Post 3

So it turns out – as much as I hate to admit this – that the talk given to all the sophomores going abroad the following year at the end of spring semester, the one about how it may take weeks or even months before you begin to settle in to the country, classes, and life you’re leading, turned out to be spot on. I can safely say by looking back through diary entries, Facebook conversations, and letters, that I only have just begun, throughout the month of October, to feel entirely at home in Paris. At this halfway point in the semester, I can finally say that I have a rough knowledge of where most metro lines will take me, where the best nutella crèpes can be found, and how much is too much to pay for that old collection of atlases from the vide grenier (the flea market). And yes, even though I just got Colleen Mallet’s email about choosing classes for the spring (seriously how is this possible?? I definitely just got here), for now I’m entirely happy to start to realize and appreciate the smaller details about Paris as it moves through the months.

As the days get colder and foggier and the leaves begin to drop dead (they don’t seem to actually change so much as simply fall down all yellow and wrinkly), tourists are also beginning to empty out of Paris. There are certain places that are always packed – the Louvre courtyard, for one, remains the absolute best place for people-watching and eavesdropping, as well the only place where you absolutely must take the “do not walk” sign seriously when trying to cross the street at any time of day. Also in the Louvre courtyard is, to me, the ultimate sign of being a local – once the vendors of miniature Eiffel Towers stop trying to sell you their wares (which generally corresponds with when you stop looking up all the time with your mouth half-open, staring at the architectural and historical glory that surrounds you), then you know you’ve made it here in Paris.

In addition to the Louvre, there are also still quite a few people out and about on the nearby Pont des Arts, also known as the Love Lock bridge. People will not stop hanging these locks symbolizing their everlasting love on this bridge until every last support sinks back into the Seine, which is in the process of happening. (If you’re at all heartbroken, or feeling cynical about love, the Love Lock bridge is a great place to go to see the metaphor of an excess of love defeating its own purpose play out in action. Oh, also if you’re feeling romantic, I guess.) In either mood, the bridges of Paris still remain some of my favorite places to go, whether it’s to see the sunset, walk slowly past expert accordion players, or as a meeting place on the way to a picnic.

Writing these posts has made me realize more and more how much my experience in Paris has been shaped by where I live. I was lucky enough to be placed with a wonderful host family in the central 2nd arrondissement, the same arrondissement as the Opéra Garnier, Tuileries, Palais Royal. Most of the tourist sites are within walking distance, which is why I’m especially attuned to how the change to fall weather has emptied out most of my neighborhood. (Well, emptied is probably too strong a word. Paris will never be empty of tourists.)  Whenever I venture out into the far corners of Paris, whether it’s to visit a friend, or to head to my drawing class, or find a piano to play, I’m always struck by the difference in mood. Historic, central Paris is full of grandeur, white marble and monuments. It’s a beautiful, and sometimes difficult place to live, simply because it’s a little inhuman. The outskirts of Paris are generally filled with newer apartment buildings, hip bakeries and incredibly expensive (all of Paris is incredibly expensive. You just have to accept it and move on) stores filled with vintage fur coats and silk scarves. It’s easier to forget that you’re in Paris, as the art you see is generally of the clever graffiti variety and not the Venus de Milo, and views across the Seine are of assorted movie theaters and bubble tea cafés as opposed to Nôtre Dame. It’s hard to say which one of these versions of Paris I like better – the outskirts are undeniably homier, fleshier, whereas Ile-de-la-Cité and its surroundings can feel as if it was carved out of cold white marble and stone. But I’m beginning to discover that maybe what I like the most is beginning to know these differences, and understand and appreciate the subtleties of what Paris has to offer. So even though I may already be halfway through this incredible semester, what’s even more incredible to me is how much I still have left to discover here in this city of rivers and goose livers, stone and stained glass, Mona Lisa and me.

 

IMG_1294.JPGThe Opéra Garnier, crowded on the walk home.

 

IMG_1762.JPGEssentially the overall message of Paris.

 

IMG_2104.jpgTuileries Garden, (rarely) almost deserted in the rain.

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 11.40.46 PM.pngMe on the Pont Royal.

 

IMG_2578.JPGSunset over the Seine

Carrie Plover | Paris, France | Post 3

Carrie Plover | Paris, France | Post 3

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The City of Love indeed: “I love you” written in hundreds of different languages on a wall in the Montmarte.

 

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La Manif pour tous.

 

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A weekend escape to Strasbourg.

De-Romanticizing the City of Love

The beginning of most romantic relationships proves a happy period of time. During the honeymoon phase, as it’s popularly called, partners tend to come to mutual decisions easily, avoid bickering, and embrace in public approximately ten times more than is necessary.

All good things must come to an end, however, and the honeymoon phase is no exception. After a few weeks or months, it will probably dawn on you that your new partner’s penchant for spitting onto the sidewalk is more disgusting than rugged; their long-winded spiels test your patience; you’d only been pretending that their habit of using wet towels didn’t skeeve you out.

It took me two months, but I finally discovered Paris’s wet towels. And happening upon some of the unsavory aspects of Parisian life gave me quite the shock. When I become involved with another person, I tend to expect that things will turn sour at some point: after all, humans are fallible. But how could Paris – the source of inspiration for countless artists, setting for many a grand-romance, and literal holder of the lofty title “City of Love” – do anything but exceed my expectations?

Among other things, I’ve discovered that sexism in Paris, like in New York, is alive and well. Should you need evidence, ladies and gentlemen, exhibit A: the tale of my recent night out to dinner with a female friend. After waiting a half hour to get into a restaurant that her host mother had highly recommended, we took our seats, attempted to place coherent orders in French (I say attempted because, as a vegetarian, I found myself with a bacon-coated salad), and began eagerly catching up on each other’s lives. After about fifteen minutes, one of two men seated at the table next to ours abruptly inquired as to whether or not we could speak French. “Oui!,” I indignantly replied, eager to prove myself.

This was a mistake on my part. My answer in the affirmative gave our counterparts the confidence to chat us up for the next twenty minutes, until we got our check. Our conversation was not without gems: after finding out that I was a New Yorker, our new friends demanded to know if my life back home was just like Sex in the City. No, I mused, I spend more time at Vassar sweating in the library than I do giggling with sassy friends over cosmos. I was nonetheless identified and subsequently referred from that point on as “Miranda,” one of the shows four female stars and a fellow redhead. This characterization was sad, I decided, in that a) it reduced my person to a poorly written ’90’s TV show character, and b) if I were anyone on Sex and the City, I would obviously be Carrie Bradshaw. My name is literally Carrie. Ultimately, if I had a nickel for every time an adult man made me feel uncomfortable, I might have enough money to afford to live here.

Reality also slapped me in the face the other day as I left my apartment to work on a project with a friend. Immediately upon opening my door, I knew something was awry: policemen decorated with guns as thick as my calves lined the street, and yells peppered the air. Already fifteen minutes late (comme d’habitude) I continued on my way, and found the path to my metro station lined with thousands of protestors. My commute, it turned out, wouldn’t be as easy as I expected.

I had inadvertently stumbled upon a demonstration of La Manif pour tous, subscribers to which believe that gay couples shouldn’t be able to marry (as they’ve been allowed to in France since May 2013) or adopt children (as they are still legally incapable of doing). To afford gay French either right, this faction argues, would be to contribute to the destruction of the family.

Pushing through this crowd proved an emotional experience. All around me were smiling, enthusiastic families, many of whom had brought their children with them to celebrate the occasion. Most also sported pink or blue (a reference to the gender binary, I’m guessing) and toted flags depicting what they consider to be the ideal family: a man, a woman, and several children. By the time I made it to my metro, my eyes were filled to the brim with tears of frustration: how could literally thousands of people – and presumably “good citizens” at that – take to the streets to support such a blatantly homophobic cause?

For these reasons, my Parisian honeymoon has come to an end. For many years, I realize, I’d been under the impression (if unwittingly) that France was a sort of utopia: beautiful, romantic, and free from most of the problems of my native country. Of course, taking French history and culture classes at Vassar began to chip away at this delusion, but it took living in Paris as long as I have to realize that it’s a city like any other: fascinating, rich in history, but not without its issues.

In any case, I’ve been told that after you push past the honeymoon phase in a relationship – discovering your beau’s flaws and acknowledging your own shortcomings – the partnership changes for the better. I think this will be the case for Paris and me going forward. By this point, we’ve taken several breaks from one another – I’ve shacked up in Spain, Strasbourg, Versailles, and Hungary over the past several weeks – but I always find myself coming back.

Speaking of other cities, I write this blog from an Airbnb in Madrid on my last day of vacation here. Rather than resenting the burden of having to pen a blog post while on holiday, I’m actually grateful for the opportunity to express myself: the day of my flight, I came down with my worst cold on record, and my voice now resembles the churnings of a broken vacuum cleaner. I’ll return to Paris tomorrow, as I alluded to, to spend the last portion of my October break there.

At this point, my abroad experience is nearly half way over, and with this post, I’ll have completed ¾ posts for this blog. I can’t say I feel like I’ve accomplished half or three-fourths of the goals I’ve set for myself here, but I’m doing my best.

In any case, thanks for reading (or skimming to the end to pretend you have – I’m on to you, Mom!) and, j’espère, à bientôt.

Mija Lieberman | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

Mija Lieberman | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

I can’t believe that my program in Madrid is now more than halfway done. This is the longest I have ever been away from home. It’s certainly hard at times being away from my family and friends, and I’ve gone through the ups and downs of home sickness already more than once, but I’m trying to remind myself to take advantage of the limited time I have in Europe. I finally bought my plane ticket home (I wasn’t on the group flight), and will get to go back to London for a few days before returning to the states since my flight leaves from there. But before then, I’m traveling throughout Spain and Europe for five weekends in a row! We have a group excursion planned to Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, and then I plan on doing a quick trip to Granada. But I’m even more excited to go to Marrakesh (Morocco will be my first time to Africa), Berlin, and Amsterdam (and I might try to squeeze in Paris without draining my bank account). After nearly five months abroad, though, I’ll certainly be ready to have a nice, long winter break at home in California. And then despite how cold the winter will be at Vassar, I look forward to seeing some familiar faces next semester.

Since my last blog post, I have changed my class schedule. I overcomplicated my life a bit by trying to take a psychology class at another university, and then ended up taking two classes at that campus so that now my life is split between two colleges. Unfortunately, I don’t really like the classes, but I’m at peace with my decision and am getting credit towards my Hispanic studies minor either way. I dropped my sociology course because I would rather take it at Vassar, and I’m NRO-ing my two half semester classes. This past week, when everybody at Vassar was on fall break, I had a final essay and exam for my first half semester class. Unfortunately, we don’t get a fall break here, but none of us have class on Fridays, so we get to travel during long weekends.

Barcelona has been one of my favorite places that I’ve visited so far. I was able to see lots of amazing works by Gaudí including La Sagrada Familia, Park Güell, and the outsides of Casa Milà and Casa Batlló. La Sagrada Familia is one of the most impressive churches I have ever seen with beautiful stained glass, and the rest of the places were all very whimsical and colorful. We also walked quite a few times down la rambla, a famous shopping street with an enormous food market, and also visited the gothic quarter. Another day we went to the beach and decided to do as the Europeans do and go topless ;). Some of us also went to the Picasso museum, and some went to a soccer game. I ended up meeting up with a couple of friends from high school I hadn’t seen in a while who are studying abroad in Barcelona who showed me around.

Sevilla (Seville) and Córdoba (Cordova) were also lovely, and it was nice to be reunited with everyone from the program again for a weekend. We took the high-speed train to Seville and visited the cathedral, the alcázar (an ancient fortress), and a fine arts museum. We also ate delicious catered lunches as a group and swam in the pool at our hotel. On the last day we went to Cordova and saw amazing mosque-cathedral, which is literally a mosque with a cathedral built several hundred years later in the center. It was an exhausting weekend full of tours, but lots of fun. On Friday some friends and I took a day trip to Toledo, a town about an hour away by bus from Madrid. We visited yet another cathedral as well as one of the only fully preserved synagogues in all of Spain. We also visited the museum of El Greco, a famous painter, and walked around for hours exploring on our own.

In Madrid, I recently got to visit the Royal Palace, where the royal family used to live. It’s one of the most extravagant homes I have ever seen, with decorations like no other. I also recently discovered a great neighborhood by me with excellent non-Spanish food. (Spanish food is great, but sometimes I need a little variety.) I finally got Indian food, Chinese food, Thai food, Mexican food, and lots of falafel. By school, we found a great little hole in the wall that sells sandwiches with every ingredient imaginable (the retreat pales in comparison). And of course I’ve treated myself many times to gelato or churros with chocolate (for dipping), a typical Spanish dessert/breakfast. Next weekend is several people’s birthdays and Halloween, and it will be my last weekend in Madrid for a while, so we plan on partying it up like true Madrileños.

Michael Gambardella | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

Michael Gambardella | Madrid, Spain | Post 3

A lot has happened since my last post.

For starters, my parents came to Madrid to visit me about two weeks ago. They had just finished a bike trip around Cataluña, the northwestern autonomous region home to Barcelona. We spent the half-week they were here in Spain running from museum to museum (El Museo del Prado and The Thyssen), walking from end to end of Madrid despite my repeated pleas for a taxi, and eating delicious food that was definitely well out of my daily 11 Euro food budget provided by the VC Program. [Word to the aspiring JYAer: jump at any opportunity to be wined and dined by visiting parents!]  Not only was it great to see my family because I was starting to get homesick and miss them a bit, but it was also great to get away from my home-stay for a few nights for a change. It’s not that I don’t love my host parents, but it’s always a breath of fresh air to get out of the apartment for a few nights and, if anything, it just made me appreciate Tata and Joaquin all the more when my mini stay-cation in my parents’ hotel room was over.

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¡Mommy and me take Parque de Retiro!

Amidst all the one-on-two time with my parents I somehow squeezed in between classes, we still managed to have dinner with my host family twice. The first time we went out to dinner at a local tapas bar after first having some wine and antipasto at my host family’s apartment. It was quite an experience to see my real parents sitting down across the table from the two people I’ve come to call family over these past months. To be honest, I was pretty nervous about it at first because neither my real nor host parents are bilingual, so I was expecting to be saddled with the task of playing translator all night—a feat I am far from capable of doing easily—, but Jesús, my 30 year-old host brother who speaks perfect English was able to come along and act as the interpreter for a greater part of the meal. Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better night out. After hitting it off so well with my parents, my host family invited us over for dinner the following evening. Tata pulled out all the stops, providing my parents with an authentic Spanish feast, complete with gazpacho, chorizo, pimientos de padrón, tortilla española, and pan-seared pork chops, all topped off with a hazelnut ice cream cake, which is a striking contrast to the small cup of cold soup that Tata and Joaquin eat nightly to avoid la indigestión.

When it was time to say goodbye to my parents after about half a week, I was sad to see them go, but I was quickly distracted by the upcoming round of midterms that, after having loomed overhead for a month or so, had begun to encroach at an alarmingly accelerated rate. It’s not that the workload at Carlos III University is particularly large or worlds more challenging than that of Vassar or Wesleyan, but rather that the majority of us have not studied or done any significant amount of work since finals last semester so we’re all a bit out of practice as far as diligent work is concerned. Moreover, the fact that many of the guidelines and expectations for my assignments are given to me in Spanish is particularly stressful because there’s always the very real possibility that I’ll misunderstand or mishear the directions being provided. A perfect example of this occurred when my teachers said, “I expect that you all have these two books read by next week, we have an in-class paper on it,” which I interpreted as “I hope you enjoyed these books, there might be a take-home project due at the end of the semester on these.”

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Overall, my midterms seem to be pretty evenly divided over the next several weeks, which is definitely a godsend considering that I’ve planned to begin traveling around Europe during the next couple of weekends. In fact, I’m writing this on a return flight from Brussels back to Madrid. My travel companions, Molly and Sybil, and I managed to squeeze a ridiculous amount of food, beer, and sightseeing into two days. We started off Friday morning with a tour of the Atomium tower, a gigantic remnant from Brussels’s World Fair that provides visitors with a bird’s-eye-view of the city, which was promptly followed by our first Belgian waffle, which put every other waffle I’ve ever tasted to shame, and then, after a great lunch at a French-Beligan restaurante, we went on a beer tour—a much anticipated overview of the divinity that is known as Belgian beer. Our tour guide Berber led us from bar to bar explaining the differences between various types of brews as we sampled a bit of everything. Our favorite was the Kriek, a variety of cherry ale that would please even the pickiest of connoisseurs.

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Despite our earnest intentions to get up early the next morning to hit the city early, we opted for a sleepy homemade French brunch instead, complete with mimosas, Edith Piaf, and the pitter-patter of rain on our flat’s windowsill overlooking Brussels’s skyline from our Airbnb flat. Afterward, we set out for the Comic Museum, which ended with us lying in a puppy pile drowsily trying to read German children’s comics aloud amidst giggles and yawns in the museum’s library.

When we’d regained our energy, we ventured back out into the city in search of the Manneken Pis, one of Brussels most iconic cultural marks, which features a tiny, ripped boy peeing into a fountain. When we finally stumbled upon the statue, we were a bit surprised to find the pigmy boy standing only at about 2 feet tall adorned in a vivid rubber rain jacket due to the inclement weather. Just as we were about to take our leave, a man from a local shop turned off the fountain and began to remove the clothes from statue. When he was done stripping the statue, he turned the water back on and, because the water pressure had been building up for a few minutes, I ended up receiving a blast of Mannequin Piss despite the fact that we were standing a good 10 feet away—too bad it was not on one of the days when the fountain is hooked up to a keg and supplies free beer to visitors (see photos below for the before and after). We topped off the night with the usual joviality and gaiety that always seems to ensue whenever beer and waffles are combined and ended up having what we decided could only be called a “quintessential JYA moment” when we went to the Grand Place square and just laid down on the ground and took in the beauty that was literally seeping from every inch of our surroundings.

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We were all pretty sad to say goodbye to Brussels, but we were also pretty excited to come back to Madrid—with our pseudo families, our love-hate relationships with Spanish food and public transportation, and most of of all, excited to get back to the place we can call “our city.”

Adios, Bruselas, we will miss you dearly!
Adios, Bruselas, we will miss you dearly!
Emily Mitamura | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 2

Emily Mitamura | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 2

Over the past few months in Prague I’ve come to the realization that I wish my life came with little labels like the ones on pre-packaged food. I think I would definitely appreciate a heads up every now and then about the effects certain phenomena might have on my body. Warning, peanuts: may contain nuts. Warning, Kafka: will consume your life. Honestly, is that so much to ask for? In that spirit, a nutrition label for everyone in the Czech Republic: when I’m sitting on a night tram reading “The Trial,” it should be fairly evident that I am not, in that moment, open to talking a stranger who may or may not be (but let’s be real, probably is) an agent of some conspiratorial government bureaucracy. I mean, duh.

I don’t know how to make it more obvious that if you’re wearing a suit or have glasses or a face, I can no longer trust you to be who you say you are. Sorry. I’m sure you’re very nice, but there’s nothing to be done. For you readers of Kafka, I know that you know what I mean (you know too much), but for anyone who hasn’t yet entered the world of doppelgangers, cyclical government bureaucracy, and people transforming into horse-simulacra seemingly out of the blue, just know that whatever security you think you feel is an illusion. Sorry to break it to you.

I know because if there’s a single religion in the ever-beautiful and rainy Prague, it’s Kafka. Not to say that everyone here reads his work or even likes the mythology that has built around him, but if you’re here and alive you’ve seen his face a million times on mugs, posters, coasters, you name it. And if you’re taking a Kafka survey class (i.e. moi) you’ve seen his face in your dreams (purists might say ‘nightmares’) and you worry every morning that you’re going to wake up a bug.

My intense (and unfortunately not that new) paranoia aside, the city is rich with places Kafka lived and wrote. It’s full of his novels, which you can find in as many languages as I knew existed in as many little book stores as a city can possibly contain, especially full of Kafka paraphernalia for purchase. The Kafka museum, though largely a tourist trap and containing relatively few things Kafka touched, sat on, or licked, is still worth a visit. I learned about the women in his life, almost puked in front of the film adaptation of “In the Penal Colony,” and walked through shiny, black paneled hallways reminiscent of the inner offices of communist Russia (yup that’s totally what I thought of first, *cough* not the ministry of magic).

Competing with Milan Kundera in recent years, Kafka is the single most famous writer to emerge from the Czech Republic and though there’s some debate as to whether he can truly be considered Czech there’s very little debate on what some might delicately call the ‘mind-blowing’ quality of his plotlines.

According to my Kafka professor, a very thin and pleasantly snarky man with hoop earrings and skinny jeans, “’What does it mean?’ is the wrong question.” He posed this philosophically in a long and beautiful speech about the labyrinthine and lasting quality of this illusive man’s work. And I sat and listened and desperately hoped that it meant he would never ask me.

Kafka as a problem on his own neck.
“Kafka as a problem around his own neck.”

 

The Kafka Museum.
The Kafka Museum.

 

Me and the
Me and the strange beauty of Prague manifest (Tower Babies by David Cerny).
Zach Rippe | London, England | Post 2

Zach Rippe | London, England | Post 2

Londoners love late-night fried chicken. Seriously. No matter what hour of the day, if you wander for at least three blocks, you’ll find one, if not five, late-night chicken (or kebab) places. They sneak up on you— just like the rain. But the rain is one thing I should not be surprised about.

Chicken and rain aside, I have slowly been learning London as I try my best to not get lost. I finally made my way up to Camden with a few people and found much of it was like an overgrown St. Mark’s place.  

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Not that it doesn’t have its charm: Camden’s cluttered streets certainly gave off their own unique vibe. We found a place to eat and later wandered through some of the different markets. The smell of street food made me wish we hadn’t stopped for some overpriced pub grub, but the atmosphere more than made up for it. We navigated cobblestone alleys, bridges and record stores in our quest to feel cool. Naturally, we wound up at none other than The World’s End (of movie fame?) but decided against stopping for a pint…

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But as much as I enjoy experiencing the city with others, there are times when I feel the need to get out and explore on my own. I went on a run to Greenwich last week as it’s only about a mile and a half from Goldsmiths. After trudging up what seemed like an endless hill, I made it to probably my favorite place here so far, Greenwich Park. The park is not only massive, lush and secluded, but it also boasts two great museums. After jogging around for a while trying to understand a game of cricket and buying a less than delicious hot dog (my lunch options were limited), I wandered into the National Maritime Museum. The largest museum of its kind, it kept me busy for a few hours as I meandered through exhibits about life houses and the East India Company.

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Keeping with the theme of museums, I also ventured to The British Museum to observe a glorious collection of artifacts and remnants of previous civilizations from around the world that the British stole, err, took for themselves. Again, I was following my touristy impulses and made sure to see everything from the Rosetta stone to the Easter Island statue. The museum itself was expansive, and at times I felt uneasy as I wandered through halls of Ancient Greek statues and Egyptian mummies. Museums are wonderful, fascinating places, but they can also feel cold and unsettling, especially for the solo traveler.

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Alas, I am also going to school while I’m here. Part of that entails going to Friday class with Professor Bob DeMaria. A few weeks ago, we went to the Victoria and Albert Museum (that’s a lot of museums) and examined several works, both print and manuscript. We were able to examine first hand the evolution of the print industry and had to decide whether there was an “initial shift” in print culture. We saw several Albrecht Dürer prints and some beautiful hand-painted manuscripts. We then got to explore the rest of the museum, but after a short while opted to sit outside in the courtyard and relax.

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My other classes have been going pretty well as I do not yet feel the pressure of our final papers that will probably hit me like a double-decker bus come late November. I’ve tried to brush up on Foucault for my Communication, Psychology, and Experience class, but when I realized I owed three pounds for overdue books, I decided to give up on my procrastination and return them. My Media Law & Ethics class has been quite interesting in that everyone seems to be coming from the same background of not knowing much about British Media Law. To be fair, it does seem to change every two weeks. Our professor assigned us books written a year ago that are apparently already out-of-date. They do provide a good framework for the ever-changing laws, however.

In my seminar this upcoming week I am assigned to be “advocate,” meaning I will have the primary speaking role in my group for our weekly mock trial. All pessimism aside, classes are going well and prove to be quite interesting, despite being much different structurally from those at Vassar.

After attempting, albeit not very hard, to go to a few comedy clubs last week, I settled for beginning the research for my independent study project in a more cozy way. I am examining the evolution of British Humor from the 20th century to present day. Thus watching copious amounts of Monty Python seems to be helpful (right?).

I still have to adjust to things here and stop waking up at 11:40 every morning. I’ve decided against playing rugby (phew) and have committed to basketball (which requires a 20 pound application fee and 60 pounds for shoes). It’s not that I am overwhelmed with work, but instead struggle with the need to complete things that are vastly different from one another. It’s all about finding a balance between being productive in school and finding the time to explore. I feel pressure to see as much as possible and enjoy what I’m continuously told will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Seriously though, it rains a lot.

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Lily Elbaum | Post 2 | Edinburgh, Scotland

Lily Elbaum | Post 2 | Edinburgh, Scotland

I had thought that by this time in my exchange I would 1. stop feeling like I needed to do everything yesterday, and 2. stop taking touristy pictures with my phone every time I see a neat vista of the city.

I was wrong on both counts.

I still feel like I should be doing something every minute of every day, even knowing I have a year in this fabulous country, and I still take pictures with my phone each time I turn a corner and see yet another beautiful view of the amazing city that is Edinburgh. I just try to be subtle about it, like I’m searching for a signal or something. It doesn’t really work and I’m pretty sure that people are onto me when I randomly turn around and hold up my phone to the sky.

I was also pretty sure it was supposed to rain more.

Scotland is in the United Kingdom, a place known for its damp and unpleasant weather. And yet, in the month I’ve been here, it has rained…twice. Just twice. Sure, it’s been cloudy a few more times, but most of the time it blows out and by the afternoon it’s sunny. Not that I’m complaining, because nothing is more beautiful than a city bathed in the golden late-afternoon sunlight, especially when seen from above. I finally got around to climbing Arthur’s Seat, and Edinburgh looks amazing from the edge of a cliff. Standing too close to the edge is not recommended, but if you’re brave, it’s exhilarating. The climb is exhausting, and it can be really windy and cold at the top, but the views just can’t be beat.

One of the best things about Edinburgh is how easy it is to travel around and see things. For example, I can now say that I’ve been to England without meaning just Heathrow. The highlands, the most rugged and uninhabited part of Scotland, are only an hour and a half drive from the city. But even the most uninhabited parts of Scotland are still dripping with history; Glencoe, easily one of the most beautiful places in the world and used in films including Harry Potter and Skyfall, was once the site of a massacre. Grim, certainly, but most of Scotland’s history is. Maybe that’s why they’re the home of whisky? It’s impossible to drive more than half an hour, even in the highlands, without coming across a distillery. A side note: choose your whisky carefully or you will definitely regret it. It’s strong stuff.

I think what has surprised me most so far is how much there is to discover without ever leaving Edinburgh. I spent this past weekend in the city and I quickly realized that one weekend wasn’t enough time to see all of Old Town, let alone New Town, Leith, and all the other parts of Edinburgh. The city may have the feel of a small town (sort of) but it is huge, and Old Town is packed with alleys, lanes, closes, stairs, and tons of other little streets filled with interesting things to see and do. Close, by the way, is an old Scottish word for stair or staircase, generally a small street off a larger street that almost always leads somewhere interesting and/or weird and always worth following. You could spend an entire day just on the Royal Mile and all of the little streets that go off of it. (I didn’t because there are so many tourists it feels like Times Square stretched into a road, but you could.)

Of course, that’s not to underestimate the wonders outside of Edinburgh, but this city has a charm all its own. Loch Ness is also charming, however, as are Pitlochry, Callander, and all the other small towns that dot the Scottish countryside. And the lochs of Scotland are a sight to behold, each and every one of them—and there are a lot. According to one botanical survey there are over 31,000; there are also more than 2,000 castles. So any idea I had to visit all the lochs and castles of Scotland has definitely been thrown out the window. Getting the chance to visit even some of them, though, is a privilege. Every time I venture outside and see what a gorgeous, wonderful place I’ve chosen to call home for nine months, I feel like I made the best decision I could have made.

Plus, who could say no to all those kilts?

View of the city from Arthur’s Seat in the afternoon. In the middle of the picture is Castle Rock.
View of the city from Arthur’s Seat in the afternoon. In the middle of the picture is Castle Rock.

 

A kilted bagpiped playing in front of the mountains of Glencoe Valley in the highlands.
A kilted bagpiper playing in front of the mountains of Glencoe Valley in the highlands.

 

Me and my friends Caroline and Margie on the boat cruise of Loch Ness. Fortunately we had nice weather that day!
Me and my friends, Caroline and Margie, on the boat cruise of Loch Ness. Fortunately we had nice weather that day!
Camille Delgado | Cinque Terre, Italy | Post 2

Camille Delgado | Cinque Terre, Italy | Post 2

Cinqueterre. Cinquestair-re. Cinquemontagnegiganti. Cinqueeverythingwillhurt.

 

Apparently it is possible to get PTSD from looking at a flight of stairs.

On October 26 and 27, a few of my friends in my program and I decided to do the famous Cinqueterre hike. The trek is amazing, and the coast legitimately looks like Crayola puked on a mountain— it’s gorgeous.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 14.07.12.jpgVernazza, La Spezia, Italy. Fourth town from the bottom (starting at Riomaggiore).

Unfortunately for us, the main trail going from Riomaggiore to Corniglia (through Manarola), is closed because of mudslides and complications with fallen rocks. Or something ridiculous like that. So we decided to start in Manarola and take the alternate trail through the mountains. This path would provide us with the next best views, and it wasn’t so hidden inland as the Riomaggiore-Manarola alternative.

Although we had heard of its difficulty, we figured it was best to get the most exhausting trail over with at the beginning, before the midday sun and fatigue settled in. There were no clear markings we could find that told us how to get on this alternative trail, so we went the only direction that made sense: up.

I don’t know if it is even possible for me to accurately and completely express to anybody that has never done this particular trail before how “up” we had to go. I grew up outdoors, so hiking, especially on volcanoes (having lived in the Pacific Rim of Fire for 18 years of my life), has always been a part of my life. This was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, simply because of the sheer “up-ness” of the trek. The path was straight up and at the steepest angle one could go before having to actually climb the mountain. Unlike the Philippines, where any uphill would be a beaten track, this trail was made up of steps; it was essentially staircase upon staircase upon staircase, with steps so large that someone of my stature (specifically, 5’2, 5’3 on a good day) had to pull some serious legwork to get up even one. Major knees to chest action.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 09.50.39.jpgManarola to Corniglia: view from the first quarter of the way up. Yes, quarter. If even.

The second you thought the stairs finally ended, you would get to the top and realize that the next flight just started, around the corner and out of sight. I mean, it was absolutely beautiful and the views were worth it, but we were all pathetic puddles of sweat and exhaustion by the time we got high enough to even begin moving in the direction of the next town. I think one of the only things keeping us going was the guarantee that, after this godforsaken trail, at some far-too-long-awaited point, we would have to go down.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 09.56.40.jpgThe “path” going towards Corniglia. Still not at the top of the mountain.

On the bright side, the views were quickly becoming even more spectacular, and as adrenaline and coffee from that morning kicked in, the trail became less arduous and slightly more about how great our asses might look after the pathetic one or two day period when we wouldn’t be able to sit on them.

This part of the narrative has not even gotten to Corniglia yet.

The trail unexpectedly curved into a forest— a strange and unprecedented twist no doubt a unique aspect to this alternate, non-coastal path. It was amazing how, in the span of about a minute, we went from an edge-of-the-mountain goat path to a cool, forest hike. Thankfully, one without stairs.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 10.03.42.jpg

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 10.11.40.jpg

This lovely path eventually opened up to our first glimpse of Corniglia herself:Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005952:2014-09-27 10.23.34.jpg

This shot doesn’t do the town justice at all. It made all the stairs, all the exhaustion, entirely worth it. It also served as a little reminder that there were still two more towns after this one to go. At the very least, however, we figured that seeing how the usual tourist trails were clear and open from Corniglia onward, this meant the last of the StairMaster chronicles. We were 100% absolutely mistaken.

We spent about an hour and a half in Corniglia, recovering and eating lunch. While some of us went and bought local food to eat, the few of us playing the role of poor starving college student (a.k.a. the five of us who sneakily squeezed into one hotel room as part of our cost cutting game-plan) ate slightly rock-hard bread covered in cheese, leaves, and turkey slices, cunningly stolen from our dining room the day before. I also bought a 20-cent orange for the hike, which I eventually ate like a barbarian, unable to peel it properly and separate the slices, as a civilized human being is wont to do.

 

This was also the stop where we went on a major gelato-hunt that involved a 33-flight, 382 step staircase (which we ran both down and up), a back road that pleasant odor of cat feces and old grass, and a complete full circle back to the square we had eaten our lunch in. If you ever do go, look for Alberto’s Gelateria (Via Fieschi 74). Here’s a tip: it is NOT down the Lardarina set of stairs, no matter how much the map says that it is, or how much an over-eager amateur guide/co-hiker (read: total tourist) is 100% convinced that it is.

Vernazza, though apparently the least touristy of the five towns, was completely packed with people (probably due to the first two trails being closed and others’ reluctance to take the alternate routes). A few of us decided to run and check out the view from the Doria Castle (1.50 euro). We had about 20 minutes to spare as we were trying to make it to the Monterosso beach before catching an early evening train. It was another hundred or so stairs to get up there and for a long while I was on the fence as to whether or not it was worth it. In hindsight, it was. At the time though…

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-135317:2014-09-27 13.47.45.jpgComing into Vernazza from Corniglia. The teeny tiny tower is called the Doria Castle – it’s bigger than it looks.

On the trail to the last town, Monterosso, we started passing a lot of other hikers. We got a couple, “HAMMERS OR YOU’RE NOTHING” calls from fellow Ultimate players on the path, and some “GO IRISH” from a surprising number of Notre Dame fans reading my friend Tom’s shirt. There were also plenty of people who, as we passed them huffing and puffing from the hundreds of steps we just climbed, would give us sympathetic looks that clearly said, “oh you poor souls, you are not done yet.” They weren’t wrong.

Skipping forward another hour and a half in the narrative, we finally made it, albeit barely, to the end goal. After watching the “trail markers to go” count slowly make it down to zero, after nearly 6 or 7 hours of stair training disguised as a hike, we were at the beach.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Masters:2014:09:28:20140928-225708:before and after.jpg8:30 in Manarola || 16:00 in Monterosso, quite a bit redder, and it varying states of undress. 

The entire experience, for every step that it was, was worth it. It was incredible, it was beautiful, and it was once in a lifetime. How many opportunities will I have to run off for a weekend – no, to run off for one single night and spend the day hiking the legendary Cinqueterre route? The hike isn’t even the whole story. There was the Tavern of Metal in La Spezia the night before (I am not joking even a little bit). There was missing our train and finding solace in McDonalds. There was the line of half naked male models jogging the path from Monterosso to Vernazza. It was a day of marvels, and a trip my ass may never forget— or fully recover from, I am convinced.

Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Dropbox:Camera Uploads:2014-09-26 22.57.05.jpgTavern of Metal.
Macintosh HD:Users:Camille:Pictures:iPhoto Library:Previews:2014:09:28:20140928-005855:2014-09-26 21.47.36.jpgThe item at the top is a torture wheel device hanging on the ceiling. At the top right is a Viking helmet. The background music *sounded like* RARARARARARARARARARAAAAAA.
Sarah King | Bocas del Toro, Panama | Post 2

Sarah King | Bocas del Toro, Panama | Post 2

The tide was high and the broken path of rocks attaching the dock to its broken concrete portion beyond was smothered by water. A baby sergeant fish, no larger than a dime, bumbled in the gaps, trapped in the shallow collection of stones, pacing its way about. The sun was setting but not in the traditional remarkable way; rarely is the sky a combination of reds and yellows and oranges here; instead, the sun sets amid a pile of fluffy grays and blues. Today it was an indecisive sky. To my right, the sun was setting in the dark blue of the distant mountains, to my left the sky was all pink pretending it held the sun, and above me the moon floated early before his due presentation. The aura was a comfortable awkward.

After a storm of ranging proportions, winds and rain blustering on our computer screens as we wrote of coral reproduction, mangrove growth, hermaphroditic reef fish, and the like for our first of three midterms, the day settled to a calm. Austen and Claire, the two interns for our program, ventured with me on a walk to Hospital Point, a small sand-rock beach on the island. Stepping through mangroves, avoiding crab holes, and quietly marching through the village of Solarte-Uno, we stopped to examine some joyous seed pods. Small paper leaves curled up forming a paper lantern, once opened it revealed a soft fuzzy seed pod. “Hey!”- we turned, an old man was shouting at us through his window, an expat, most likely.

“What are you doing!?!”

“Just going on a walk…”

“Come over here so I can hear you!”

“That’s okay…we are just walking…”

…and we wondered away. Back on track to the beach. Once there, we stood indecisive, which path to take. “Hey!” we turned, the old man in gray sweatpants and a walking stick with his small dog popped out of the trees. “Get off my property, what are you doing? You tourists come here for a day and just think you can do whatever you want….” He rambled on and we attempted to explain ourselves to no avail. He chased us down a path we did not know – certainly frazzled our aura and got us partially lost in the jungle.

We had been studying all day: Hymenoptera: ants, wasps and bees, Lepidoptera: moths and butterflies, Chiroptera: tent making bats, Tripiliformes: hummingbird, break. The night was quiet and warm. Julia and I sat massaging each others backs, everyone snuggled on the uncomfortable futon and “South Park” rambling over our ears. A gecko crawled across the screen and we laughed at the existence of a “Manbearpig.”

The rainy season is still a few days away, so because all the water for the house is rain water, we were down to one tank…that meant limited showering…all week. Group presentations were due on Saturday and we were melting in research and paper writing. We heard thunder, and the sky exploded in light and water – any and all laundry on the line soaked through. And us too. It was 11:00 pm, we had lost our minds to the piles of work on the table. We sped into the rain, shampoo and conditioner thrown everywhere. The rain went in and out of its intensity, offering moments of panic – will we be able to get the soap out of our hair? – attempting to play tag without slipping.

We marched through the forest behind Professor Leo, able to see nothing save the paths before our head lamps until we reached the light traps. Flashlights hung from trees were aimed at bed sheets tied to their branches, a trap for insects and biodiversity investigation. Approaching the white sheets in teams, we stole insects into jars of alcohol for microscope fun in the morning. Green grasshoppers with intimidating faces stared back, I felt guilty as I plopped them into our jar. There was excitement at the site of spiders and wasps usually feared in the daytime, now appreciated for their uniqueness and yearned for.

An awkward sky stared back at me as I sat at the dock and I dwelt there for a moment at the little fish attempting to figure it all out – then jumped up and meandered up the steep hill to the Solarte Inn and dinner.



Taylor Thewes | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 2

Taylor Thewes | Prague, Czech Republic | Post 2

No matter to whom I talk, I seem to always be asked the vague question, “How is Prague?” While it is a fine question and very much expected, it has proven entirely impossible for me to answer. Maybe that’s because being abroad has been such a transcendent experience that it cannot be condensed into a measly few words. Maybe I am selfish and want to keep all my experiences to myself. Most likely, it is because I am simply too lazy to muster up the ability to retell the same stories over and over, so I decide to simply avoid the question when it is asked.

Since this is how I feel, the following written text is transcribed from a letter I wrote a few days ago to a former Vassar student who has now moved on into the real world. I feel that writing for a friend may bring out the ease in my retellings, albeit in a possibly too casual manner. I do believe that the positives outweigh the negatives in this matter.

As for me, everything has been pretty hectic because school has technically not started. I start next Monday. Because of this, I am simply living week to week, but even more so, just day to day. I really get super stressed and agitated when I do not have anything to do. It worries me and gives me this feeling that I am forgetting about something. Still, I do not have any work, so I am instead doing a lot of ~fun activities~. I have explored a lot of Prague, but I have kind of found a handful of good spots that I keep visiting. I hate getting stuck in a predictable routine. I never want to be predictable. I need to find some new spots. I plan on doing that this weekend.

This past weekend was quite something though, and it is probably the best story I have so far. To start, I have become extremely close with a friend named Dan. We are film partners and known as inseparable/dating by many people in our program. We are not actually dating. Anyway, everyone booked a ticket for Budapest this past weekend, but we were too late as the tickets sold out. Instead, as we drowned our sorrows of exclusion with a two liter, two-dollar bottle of the finest local brew known as Branik, we quickly turned our misfortune into adventure and decided to randomly go to Vienna. No amount of preparation could have prepared us for what was to come. Our weekend in Vienna has since become something people model their weekends away after. It has become something of legend.

My gosh, did a lot of things happen. A lot, a lot. The true weekend started when we met this guy named Toby our first night. He was throwing up when we found him. I told Dan not to talk to him. Dan refused and said, “I’m talkin’ to him.” After some rather wonderful conversation despite the smell radiating from Toby’s mouth, Toby told us that his friend HK was from Prague. HK turned out to be just as lovely. The absence of puke was rather refreshing as well. They told us to come with them. Instinctually, this obviously seemed like the right decision. It did then, it kind of does now.

They took us to a random neighborhood that did not look like any sort of party – it was a straight up ghost town. We went through these doors of a random brownstone, and next thing I know, we went into an underground nightclub that I think was run by a mafia. They paid for us to get in, and then, they took us to the VIP section, also for free. Naturally, free bottle service was next. It was absolutely crazy, and it is tough to conjure up the exact situation in words. This just did not seem possible.

At around five, I realized Dan was not in the club. I left and saw him one hundred yards away stumbling around. He had just wandered off without knowing where our hostel was. I was lucky I found him.

The following day: lying practically dead in a park, recovering.

The next night, we knew we had to find HK and Toby. Before going out though, I grilled our hostel’s location into Dan’s head in case we got separated. We eventually found our new friends after a long search. We were at a wine party where, of course, we got free bottles of wine. They then took us to a different club where, yes, we got free bottle service. Dan was in mid conversation with a woman when he said he remembered going off to sleep in his mind but still being present physically, to put it delicately.

At three, I decided that we needed to head out. Hunger had set in. We went to the train stop that would take us right to our hostel. There, we got burritos. Somehow, and to this day I am still puzzled about this, Dan had gone missing. Again. Right there. I finished my burrito. He had still not come back. I got another burrito. He had still not come back. I figured he had gone back to the hostel now that he finally knew the location. I went back, and along the way, I became so tired that I did not bother to turn on the lights to check for a sleeping Dan upon my return.

The next morning, I was awoken by a dude in my hostel. He told me checkout was in twenty minutes. I found it odd of him to solely wake me, but then I realized Dan was not in his bed. I did not know what to do, so I confusingly started to pack Dan’s and my bags. Then, right when I was about to leave the room, Dan stumbled into the doorway and breathed the biggest sigh of relief. Without talking, he came over and hugged me. We left.

He then told me that he only remembers at about 8 a.m. he awoke in some sort of bed, in either an ambulance or house. The inability to differentiate the two is quite astounding, actually. There were three guys keeping him there, and he had to argue with them to leave. He then realized that he was in southeast Vienna, five miles from where we partied in northwest Vienna. Not only was this the case, but he did not have his phone or wallet, determining that he had been mugged. He did have throw up all over his left leg, however.

We then spent the day going around to different sights and lying on them. We laid on statues, dozed in parks, and slumbered in multiple restaurants. We bargained in an Apple store for a phone charger and ate peanut butter straight from a jar with our fingers for every meal that day. Finally, we stumbled our way to the bus, and eventually made it home. I am not sure how all this comes across via text, but I must say that it was one of the greatest weekends of my life.

Hud and me
Dan and me joshing around in Prague.

 

eating cheese sandwiches in Vienna
Eating cheese sandwiches in Vienna.