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Month: February 2015

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 6

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 6

It’s almost the end of February and I don’t where the time is going. At the University of Edinburgh, I’m lucky because my classes end on April 3rd – how crazy is that? But it also means I have a ton of papers and presentations to do in a very short amount of time. I think that’s part of the reason we have a week off, for no particular reason, in the middle of February. Like the calm before the storm. It’s called Innovative Learning Week, and lots of societies and schools offer fun little week-long courses you can take to learn something new while all regular classes are suspended. But students being students, most people do not use the time off to learn things. That’s what classes are for. So, like most of my peers, I took off on a week-long trip. I have a friend who went to Chamonix, another to Barcelona, and another to Germany. The main idea is getting out of Scotland in winter.

I, clearly not thinking this decision through very well, decided to go to Ireland. Not that going to Ireland in itself was a bad idea, but going in February was not the best choice. Maybe. Well, it definitely wasn’t if I was hoping to experience warmer weather than I’d been getting in Edinburgh. Because if I was hoping those nice Gulf Stream currents were going to keep me toasty warm, then I was wrong. Dead wrong. The thing about northern Europe in February is that it just doesn’t get warm. It just doesn’t. That’s not how seasons work.

I arrived in Dublin bright and early on Monday morning and almost immediately panicked after realizing that the bus I was supposed to be taking to Limerick didn’t exist. I asked bus drivers, people in tourist shops, even a nice-looking police officer. No one had heard of the bus company, the route number, and the bus stop it supposedly stopped at did not have the route listed. Great. I had to be in Tralee by six or I was not getting the last bus to Dingle, my final destination. So I whipped out my phone, thanked anybody up there who was listening that my data worked in Ireland, and frantically Googled how I was going to be able to get to Tralee. With seven minutes to spare I found a bus to Cork which had a connection to a bus to Tralee, bought a ticket, and I was on my way. Rome2Rio to the rescue again.

Once I’d completed my eight-hour journey to the very west coast of Ireland, I was finally able to relax. After that little panic attack, everything went pretty smoothly. Dingle is a cute little town in the middle of nowhere on Dingle Bay. My second day in Ireland, I rented a bike and cycled the Slea Head Drive – a 46-or-so-kilometer route that goes around the Dingle Peninsula. It goes by some truly dramatic coastline full of cliffs, beaches, and bays. And the water is the bluest blue you’ve ever seen. Like robin’s egg blue, or cyan. The kind of blue you don’t think exists in real life, only in the delightful world of Photoshop. Seeing it almost made the six-kilometer uphill, into the wind, raining stretch at the end, worth it.

After Dingle I headed to Killarney, a mid-sized town a ways from Dingle next to Killarney National Park. Thanks to some strategic questioning, I managed to get a ride with a girl driving around the Ring of Kerry, a 176-kilometer drive that goes all the way to the sea and circles the National Park. It’s really quite impressive. The whole time we drove we were just ahead of the rain, and several times it drove us into the car while we were stopped to take pictures. At one point the sun finally made an appearance just as we turned a corner into a valley and there in front of us was a rainbow, and the end of the rainbow was in the valley. It was absolutely one of the most magical moments of my life. And I mean that literally.

The last stop I made was in Dublin. It’s a weird sort of city, like it hasn’t quite figured out what it’s doing yet. It doesn’t have the old-world charm of Vienna or the gritty vibe of Berlin, but it’s not a cosmopolitan city like London or Paris, either. It’s a little urban, a little quaint, a little gritty, and a lot of fun. It’s easy to forget that Ireland hasn’t been independent very long, but in Dublin, you can feel the tension. Maybe that’s why they drink so much Guinness. Well, a toast of the black stuff to Ireland. Sláinte!

Curious sheep in front of Dingle Bay in County Kerry
Curious sheep in front of Dingle Bay in County Kerry. 
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The girls I drove around the Ring of Kerry with, at the Gap of Dunloe in Killarney National Park.
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Sunset on the River Liffey from O’Connell Bridge in Dublin.
Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 1

Bianca Zarrella | Bonaire, Netherlands Caribbean | Post 1

Well, it’s 85 and sunny every day here in Bonaire: even when it rains the sun is still out.

“Bonwhere?” you might ask. Bonaire is a tropical island, north of Venezuela. It is part of the ABC islands, made up of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, legally a part of the Netherlands.

I am attending school with CIEE, an organization that has study abroad programs all over the world. The program is busy; our day is scheduled from 7am to 8pm. We go snorkeling in the water in front of the house at 7:15, and then have breakfast. We have a bit of class in the morning and then a little more after lunch, but some days we just skip the class part and scuba dive, snorkel, hike, or swim as part of class. And then other days we go on day trips: so far I have toured Cargill Salt Company, the slave huts, and Lac Bay – the home of windsurfing on Bonaire.

I’ve probably seen more wildlife here than I’ve seen in any zoo or aquarium. There is every color of angelfish, jellyfish, shrimp, parrotfish, puffer fish, barracuda, large tarpons, frog fish, seahorses, octopi and flounder. My favorite sea creatures are feather dusters that look like little palm trees, and when you go to touch them they suck themselves into a hole! Bonaire also has native flamingos here; it’s one of the only places in the world where they naturally breed.

My classes this semester include advanced scuba, where I will become a certified advanced and rescue diver, and could also become a master diver; coral reef ecology; cultural and environmental history of Bonaire, where I am learning Papiamentu, a creole language that is widely spoken on the island; marine ecology field research methods; tropical marine conservation biology; and an independent research project on a topic of my choice.

The people here complete the experience. My nine classmates are from all over the United States, and we all get along very well. The instructors are from Columbia, England, Belgium and Holland, and all somehow ended up living here to scuba dive and study ecology. The locals are also friendly; everyone has that islander attitude where they’re all laid back and drive their cars without mufflers and play loud reggae.

The goals of my program make this all worthwhile. It focuses on saving the planet and making a difference. We mostly collect data from the reef, and see how humans are impacting the wildlife here. The work is very rewarding, because it is a completely different satisfaction that comes from helping something like coral that simply has no control over whether it will die or not. There’s no politics in it; you just save the coral because you know it’s a living thing, not because it will pay you or owe you a favor.

My favorite experience took place last week on my first night dive. Night diving is scuba diving after the sun has set. It is hard to describe the feeling of excitement and wonder I had during that dive, but picture this… 19:27 (7:27 pm): You strap on all of your scuba gear just as the last rays of sun are gleaming across the ocean. 19:48 (8:48 pm): You wade into the water and begin your descent. Be sure to turn on your flashlight as you walk in, because if you drop it, you will not be able to find it until the next morning. As you descend, you can shine your beam of light where you would like (just not in your buddy diver’s eyes!) The only things you can see are those at the end of that tunnel of light. You can look up and see the delicate motion of waves reflecting against the dim light of the moon, but as you get down to thirty or forty feet, you lose sight of the waves. You are dependent on your handheld light; you can’t even see your hand if you hold it out to the side of you without your light. You can shine it downwards onto the reef and see nocturnal creatures creeping out of their crevices, entranced by the beam of light. Other diurnal animals can be seen sleeping in groups or in a nest, and the majestic Trumpetfish sleep hanging upside down. Basically, this experience feels like you are floating amidst a vast expanse of darkness. It is uncertain, because you can only see about 10% of what is surrounding you, but it is exhilarating at the same time.

I think that is an accurate observation about my abroad experience so far, actually. I am enjoying every moment, yet I am clearly a foreigner here, immersed in a culture I know plenty about from textbooks – but that knowledge will only inform you about 10% of what it is like to actually live here. And that uncertainty might just be what makes this experience so memorable.

Chelsea Carter | Atlanta, Georgia | Post 1

Chelsea Carter | Atlanta, Georgia | Post 1

Two days before I was supposed to leave for Spelman I had a nervous breakdown. My mom was standing beside me and I was heaped over the couch, balling my eyes out. I kept thinking about my friends back home and how much I would miss them. And I was worried it would be hard to make new friends, especially being white at an HBCU (historically black college university). But I knew I wanted and needed a new perspective and realized the fear I was experiencing was all part of the journey.

So I was off! And by no means did I have an easy trip to Atlanta. Of course I overpacked and had to reorganize my bags in front of everyone at the check-in desk. And to save money, I decided to empty out all my covers and carry them on with me. But when I was getting ready to board my second flight, the stewardess took one look at me and threw everything I was carrying into a trash bag. And finally, when I got to Atlanta, I found that the airline had lost my luggage. But, I eventually got my bags back and a $50 voucher towards another flight! (So, everything was fine.)

My first week at Spelman was one of the most difficult weeks of my life. I even thought about coming home.

I suppose I never truly anticipated the reactions I would get.

Conversations I’ve had:

Guy: “What are you up to?”

Me: “Going to class”

Guy: “Which class?”

Me: “Race and ethnicity”

Guy: “Why are you going to that class?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Guy: “Well, aren’t you white?”

Girls: “You’re going to get a lot of stares”

Me: “Yeah, I’ve gotten a lot already”

Girls: “Also the men from Morehouse will compete over you – to see who can get with the white girl first”

Guy: “Hey, I’ve seen you around and wanted to say hey”

Me: “Hey, what made you wanna come say hi?”

Guy: “You’re the whitest girl I’ve ever seen in the AUC”

Guy: “I like you”

Me: “Haha, thanks”

Guy: “I’ve gotta start hanging out with more white people”

Me: “….Let’s go to McDonalds!”

Guy: “Yuuuus. Let’s put you somewhere where you can be seen in the car. The cops won’t pull us over if they see there’s a white girl in the car.”

What have I learned:

I have been awakened to the diversity within the black community and have been able to deconstruct the myth that all black individuals and students are alike. I believe this myth came about as a byproduct of the tokenization of black students in PWIs (predominantly white institutions). I have met black students from all over the U.S. and they have had to adjust to Spelman and to the South just like I have. This went against my initial assumption, in which I thought my skin would be what would separate me from the other students. I now realize that skin color is not what creates a sense of belonging.

…I want to believe that I have always thought this. But I guess I’ve just never fully understood exactly what goes into the construction of race, what it takes to deconstruct race, and how one must combat the myths, stereotypes, and prejudice that go into the construction of race. And I am saddened to say that it has taken me this long to deconstruct this myth. But I believe the diversity within the black community is not something that is often vocalized or discussed (as it is easier and more convenient for white institutions to tokenize black students than it is to recognize them as individuals and discuss the histories and cultures of black individuals in America).

I have also started to understand and see the mixed messages taught to Spelman women. While all the women here are well educated and informed, and are supposedly inspired and encouraged to go out and change the world, they are pressured to uphold gendered and old-fashioned traditions. The queer community here is on the hush hush, the women are held to a curfew, Spelman is a dry campus, and a there is a tradition in the beginning of each year in which all the girls dress in white and are paired off and assigned to a Morehouse man. In other words, there’s still a certain image the school is trying to uphold. There’s also this weird gendered structure, in which all the men continuously approach the women here, pay for dinner, open the car door, and are expected to have a car. Yo, what year is this?!

Hannah Harp | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

Hannah Harp | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

If you’re looking for a happy-go-lucky, sugarcoated story of what it is like to live abroad, keep moving. If you want to know how I really feel about my time abroad so far, keep reading.

This is not my first time traveling abroad. My father is a missionary to Haiti and I have gone with him three times so far. (It’s an amazing experience, but an entirely different story.) This is, however, the very first time in my life that I have packed everything I can fit into one suitcase that weighs less than fifty pounds and flown across the ocean, entirely alone, to live somewhere completely new, where I don’t speak the language. I promise, it’s just as terrifying as it sounds.

And so, upon arrival, I was entirely sleep-deprived, knew almost no one, and probably smelled really, really bad. Honestly, the most comforting thought was that everyone around me was feeling exactly the same way. A few hours later, I was settling into my new home for four months, which is actually pretty cute – if you can get over the amazingly tiny bathrooms.

If you can, think about freshmen orientation, during which you are thrown together with the people you will live with for the year and asked to connect with them almost immediately. Now multiply that by two, because my program is twice as big as any freshman class Vassar has ever seen, and move all of it to a city, again, that you don’t speak the language in and you have been in for, oh, maybe two hours. 

Not scary, at all.

Immediately I realized the sense of home that I feel at Vassar had disappeared and I was overwhelmed by the seemingly endless list of responsibilities I had in the first few days, followed by the impending semester of classes I had never heard of, all while looking around for familiar faces where there were none. (As a person who struggles with her mental health, that was not the best place to be in on the first day of the program.) I proudly advocate self-care every day of my life, but it was almost impossible to love myself those first few days when I felt like I had lost control.

The days went by, and after the panic subsided, I began to find a routine. I have only been here for two weeks, but the familiarity you can build in a short amount of time is amazing. With every new place comes adjustment, and there are things I will miss about Vassar that I just cannot have here.

Walking around the city during one of our orientation activities helped me develop a sense of home in Copenhagen. Unlike Vassar, there are always new places you notice when you’re walking to class, which makes for a very exciting daily routine.

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A pedestrian street, about two blocks from my house, outside Studenterhuset, a chill spot for students.

 

 

The bridge to Christianborg, the palace, for the Danish Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court.
The bridge to Christianborg, the palace, for the Danish Parliament, the Prime Minister, and the Supreme Court.

 

 

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The view from the top of the Round Tower, next to Studenterhuset. Even on a snowy day, it’s beautiful.

 

The point of me sharing the ups and downs of the beginning of my abroad story is to communicate that going abroad is not the prettiest, most glamourous, life-changing experience unless you work hard to make it that. I foolishly thought that stepping into my abroad experience would be easy and flawless, but I am quickly realizing that this may be the hardest thing I have ever done. Should you decide to go abroad, the best advice I can give you is: find out before you get there what you want out of the experience, how you can get that, and what your program will offer you. In my case, I had no idea that I wanted a hand-holding program until I got here. Luckily, there are people here who have their hands wide open, but I jumped in without thinking through the positives and negatives of the programs I applied to.

All of that said, I am loving my semester so far in Copenhagen, an incredibly lively city. I live in the city center, about a two-minute walk from my classes, and most other things that I need. It may be incredibly challenging and intensely terrifying, but I am doing it, one day at a time, and every day I learn something new and exciting about Copenhagen, but most importantly, about myself. I may not be doing exactly what “the abroad experience” is about, but I will do what is best for me, and that will be worth it.

Me at Nyhavn, a popular pretty harbor, embracing a semester of challenge and change.
Me at Nyhavn, a popular pretty harbor, embracing a semester of challenge and change.
Chris Brown | Brighton, England | Post 1

Chris Brown | Brighton, England | Post 1

It’s hard to believe that right now people at Vassar are taking classes, eating at the Deece, and participating in daily shenanigans while I’m sleeping in a bed in Brighton, England. I’m at the beginning of my term abroad at the University of Sussex, and everything still feels like one big practical joke, like I’m on The Truman Show or something. But I’m living it, and just trying to take it day by day.

I had to go through international orientation before my classes started. I met people from all over the world, it was amazing. Denmark, Australia, Chile, and so many other places. Ironically, about half of the exchange students this term are from the United States, and the collective groan when we all heard that says it all. I’ve been hanging mostly with other American students from my IFSA program, and they are all really cool. The great part is it’s such an eclectic group of us — we are all different, but we’re all united by this experience.

Brighton is a decent sized town in south England. The vibe here is small shops, lots of pubs, and an all around eclectic group of people. It’s right next to the ocean, so I’ve had the luxury to be able to visit the beach. There’s no sand, it’s all rocks, which I do find a little bit irritating. But there is a really cool pier along the beach with a ferris wheel, a huge arcade, and all the other cliché carnival stuff that you would find at a, well, carnival. It was awesome to be able to see deep fried things again. It made me feel right at home, while simultaneously making me question everything about the American lifestyle.

Other than the pier, there’s just a lot of things to do in Brighton. I had the privilege of attending theater productions both in London and in Brighton. In London I saw The Woman in Black, which for live theater was actually quite scary. I saw Arcadia in Brighton, and I swear, I still have no clue what that play is about. The theater was really nice though, even if my two friends and I were the only people under the age of thirty to attend the play. The difference in entertainment here is subtle, but distinct at the same time. I love going to plays and musicals, but outside of Vassar, I don’t know a lot of people who consider seeing a play a legitimate form of entertainment. Here in England, the cinema plays second fiddle to the theater. Everyone lines up at the ticket booths, and there are bars surrounding the buildings to distract the patrons. Still getting used to it, but I do not mind the change at all.

Classes here are different as well. It is the first time that I’ve actually sat in a real life lecture hall that was full! I’m used to having twenty to thirty people in my classes, and now I’m having to struggle over differential equations and gamma functions with one hundred other academic soldiers. It’s not preferred, because I don’t really know my professors (or conveners and they’re called) that well yet, but I’m doing my best to learn without looking like that exchange student who doesn’t know what the heck they’re doing.

The landscape here is beautiful. There are so many rolling hills and trees, and I haven’t had enough time to explore any of them that well. I’m looking forward to the day that I can wake up, put on my tennis shoes, and just go on a solo hike up some trail by the ocean. Until that day, I’m just gonna keep trying as many new things as I can and meeting as many new people as possible before my short time in this country has ended.

 

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Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 5

Lily Elbaum | Edinburgh, Scotland | Post 5

It’s February now and the only thing to be said for the weather is at least I’m not drowning in snow. It has snowed here a few times, much to my surprise, off and on, but more off than on. Down here, in lowland Edinburgh along the coast, the snow doesn’t really stick and we’re far more likely to have rain. We certainly don’t miss out on the cold though! While all my friends back in the Northeast are struggling to class in the cold and the snow, it’s just plain cold here. Still, things could really be much worse, but it’s easy to forget about enjoying the experience of being abroad when it’s dark and gray for days on end. Or it would be if Scottish weather wasn’t so changeable.

Spending Christmas abroad was strange. I stayed with a friend near London over the holiday, one which has very little religious meaning and lots of sentimental meaning for me, and I was reminded by how weird other people’s family traditions seem to an outsider. I also discovered Christmas poppers, which is a tradition that should absolutely find its way to the States. That time of year makes you appreciate the difference between being sick of home and being homesick, and also how very lucky I am to have a place to call home. More than one place really, because Edinburgh has become a second home to me. When I think of “home” while I’m traveling, I picture my flat with my five international roommates in a building that’s not really near anything at all but still somehow feels central and has good memories, and even a few not-so-good ones, and makes me happy to be back in this city and this country that I’ve come to love.

I spent New Year’s in Edinburgh, which meant that I joined about fifty thousand of my closest friends at an enormous street party called Hogmanay. I don’t know why it’s called Hogmanay, because there are no hogs and they aren’t manaying (not actually a thing), but it’s definitely a good time! There were so many people there that despite being outside in the cold for hours, I didn’t feel cold. Fireworks went off on the hour from the castle for the four hours leading up to midnight, and then there was a huge display when 2014 became 2015. If Edinburgh knows how to do one thing, it’s New Year’s Eve.

It’s been an adventure the past couple weeks getting to know my new roommates and starting classes. The first two weeks is the busiest time up until exams in May — trying to figure out if you’ll be able to stand your classes, if you’ll actually pay attention, if it counts toward your major, etc. It’s always a struggle to figure out just the right combination of courses to guarantee at least a passing grade in all of them. I also got three new roommates in place of the ones who went home, and it has been a delight getting to know them. If group living has taught me anything, and it’s taught me many things, it’s that everyone has their quirks and people are far less concerned with how weird you are if you are neat, don’t leave your dishes in the sink, and remember to buy toilet paper from time to time. (It’s also taught me that people tend to have a bystander mentality about answering the doorbell.)

And that brings us back to February. We’re already one-seventh of the way through the shortest month of the year. It’s crazy to think that a month has already gone by in the new year. Time seems to be going much faster this semester, and there’s still so much I want to do! Last semester it seemed like there was all the time in the world, and now I’m realizing just how many things I didn’t do and still want to. I have places to go, things to do, people to meet! And there’s so little time! In four months’ time I’ll be home, back in the United States. Leaving feels so far away and yet so very, very, very soon. I’m lucky that I was able to go abroad for the whole year, but that still doesn’t seem like enough time, and I’m only exploring a small portion of the world. It’s truly incredible how vast the world is and how much there is to explore and see. But I’m working my way around it, one train ride, one flight, one city, at a time. Here’s to another great semester, Edinburgh, cheers.

 

The midnight fireworks during Hogmanay.
The midnight fireworks during Hogmanay.
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Sunset looking out over the Thames and the Houses of Parliament from the London Eye in December.
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A snowy Arthur’s Seat in January.