Browsed by
Month: February 2016

Nicole Howell | Paris, France | Post 2

Nicole Howell | Paris, France | Post 2

I’ve officially been in Paris for six weeks, which means that I’m starting to transition from the “everything is new and I’m still adjusting” phase into a “everything is still new and I’m still adjusting, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it” phase. Those may sound like pretty much the same thing, but for me, the subtle difference means that while I’m still getting used to the French language and culture, I’m not totally thrown off guard when a random stranger on the street asks me for directions in French anymore (most of the time I can’t help them, but at least now when I can’t help them I can say that I’m sorry in a convincingly French accent!).

Speaking French all of the time is still really tough, but in the past six weeks I’ve accepted the fact that I’m going to make grammatical mistakes sometimes and misuse words other times, but that this is an inevitable part of learning and it’s not something that I should feel self-conscious about. I’ve had conversations with a couple of French people who have complimented my speaking ability and my accent already (someone even thought I was French when he first met me! A couple sentences in and it became very clear that that was not the case, but still, it was a nice moment), and those few encounters have really helped boost my confidence when going into conversations with other people as well! It’s still hard, and very trying at times, but all and all I would say that it’s been going pretty well!

Now, onto the real topic that I want to focus on in this blog post: food. Food is a huge part of the abroad experience, especially for someone like me who loves to cook and who has spent many a weekend night in at Vassar watching cooking shows with my friends. I live in a fairly fancy area of Paris with my host family, which means that there are a lot of renowned restaurants, boulangeries and pastry shops within walking distance of the apartment. This means that I can try melt-in-your-mouth caramels at Jacques Genin, have an amazing praline financier at Victor & Hugo, taste pistachio or caramel stuffed madeleines at Gilles Marchal, drink the best hot chocolate of my life or eat spoonfuls of crème de marron (an amazing dessert made of roasted chestnuts) at Angelina, or scarf down a really great chocolate croissant at Des Gateaux et Du Pain, all without even needing to take the metro! This set-up is obviously great for my aggressively active sweet-tooth, but not so great for my wallet… However, I’ve accepted the fact that the majority of my meal stipend here goes straight towards desserts, and honestly, I have no regrets.

Basque-style chicken at the popular restaurant Chez Gladine. Not pictured: the chocolate-and-chili lava cake that followed!
Basque-style chicken at the popular restaurant Chez Gladine. Not pictured: the chocolate-and-chili lava cake that followed!

Highly controversial opinion time: I’ve decided that I don’t really like eclairs, and that macarons are kind of overrated (delicious, but almost never worth the price). However, an exception to these rules is at the Patisserie Saduharu Aoki, where traditional French desserts are made using traditional Japanese ingredients. Once I stepped foot in that shop, there was no way that I could resist buying a wasabi macaron or a black sesame éclair; those flavor choices may sound daunting, but they were seriously incredible.

Last week, I went to a Food Festival called A Taste of Paris (not sure why the name was in English, but I digress…), and it was maybe the most magical place I have ever been to!

Nicole and friends from the VWPP program take on a Parisian food festival!
Nicole and friends from the VWPP program take on a Parisian food festival!

Some of the most renowned (aka Michelin-starred) French chefs were represented there, including Guy Savoy, Alain Ducasse, Frederic Anton and many more. The juxtaposition of some of the fanciest food I have ever eaten with the cheap paper plates that it was all served on that night was pretty amusing to me (and unfortunately didn’t make for the best commemorative photos), but let me tell you, it was incredible. I started the night with foie gras, then moved on to salmon confit, gnocchi with truffle shavings, tapioca “risotto”, and finished off with caviar and eggplant compote. And honestly, I don’t think I have the linguistic capacity- in French or in English- to describe what this food tasted like. This was my first experience with real “gourmet” food, and everything I ate that night was on a gastronomical level that I have never even gotten close to experiencing before. The food I ate that night could have come straight out of one of the many episodes of MasterChef that I watched with my suitemate last semester, except I’m inclined to think that some of it might have been better (though I wouldn’t really know if that’s accurate, because sadly I don’t have the necessary credentials to be a judge on that show).

Foie gras by Chef Nicolas Beaumman
Foie gras by Chef Nicolas Beaumman
Salmon confit with smoked beetroot and horseradish by Chef Thibaut Sombardier
Salmon confit with smoked beetroot and horseradish by Chef Thibaut Sombardier
French caviar and eggplant compote by Chef Frederic Anton
French caviar and eggplant compote by Chef Frederic Anton

All in all, I would say that I’ve been using my time–and my food stipend–fairly wisely (albeit quite frivolously) these past few weeks. And while the food has been a huge highlight so far, it’s only one part of the picture of what I’ve been up to. I’ve seen a couple of theatre productions, found a really cool jazz bar, visited some museums, and I even watched the Super Bowl from a French sports bar (now that was interesting…). The workload is getting more serious lately, which has been kind of a bummer, but luckily for me, a quick pick-me-up (in the form of chocolate croissant or stuffed madeleine) is always (literally) just around the corner!

Jessica Roden | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

Jessica Roden | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 2

It has now been more than a month since I have arrived in Copenhagen, and even though I have only been able to explore a small fraction of what this city has to offer, I’ve loved almost every moment of it (with the exception of my ongoing sickness). I haven’t been able to travel outside of Denmark yet like some of my friends have, but I also haven’t felt the need to because there is still so much here to explore.

A couple of weekends ago I traveled to Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as the inspiration for Hamlet’s castle Elsinore. Coming from the United States, Arizona specifically, where the buildings aren’t more than a couple of hundred years old, I get easily impressed when I see any kind of old building, let alone a castle.
Jessica outside of Kronborg Castle
Jessica outside of Kronborg Castle

The outside was beautiful, but what was even cooler and rather creepy was the underground tunnels that housed both soldiers and prisoners. I was glad to have been neither because those tunnels were cold, damp and claustrophobia-inducing.

Jessica in the tunnels beneath Kronborg Castle
The tunnels beneath Kronborg Castle
Along with a couple of history lessons, I have also tried to experience Danish culture. One of these cultural events was Fastelavn, which we interpreted as being like a second Halloween. It is typically just celebrated so that small children can have fun and play games, but that did not stop us twenty-somethings from enjoying the festivities. Our Danish residential advisors set up a small afternoon party for us which included a costume contest and the Danish version of a piñata. Their version was of a wooden barrel full of candy with a picture of a cat on it that had to be struck many times before the candy was released. For the costume contest, my roommates and I dressed up as the Spice Girls, with each person being a different cooking spice. We won the costume contest.
Jessica and roommates celebrating Fastelavn
Jessica and roommates celebrating Fastelavn
Last week I went on core course week, which is where every class experiences a different part of Denmark or a neighboring country in ways relevant to their class. My core course is Cross-cultural Psychology, and we traveled four hours by bus to the Northern Jutland city of Aalborg. With a population of only a little over a hundred thousand people, Aalborg is actually Denmark’s fourth largest city. We were only in Aalborg for two nights, but it is safe to say we collectively ate all of the food that the city had to offer. Each day we either had a fancy buffet or a multiple-course meal. If I forget everything else about Denmark, I will still remember the food.
IMG_7655
Aalborg harbor
The streets of Aalborg
The streets of Aalborg
Another thing that I am also unlikely to ever forget is my trip to an asylum center. I have heard from other students who visited other asylum centers that their experiences were more promising, but my experience at this particular center was frustrating and depressing. I wish I could use the whole of this blog to talk about happy things that have happened to me, but the lives of these asylum seekers are  anything but happy, and that is not okay. A lot has been on the news about Denmark taking away valuable possessions from incoming refugees, but that is only part of the problem.
It became obvious that our visit there would only be beneficial for us and not them. We were there to supposedly eliminate our anti-Islam stereotypes, and they were there to be put on display for us like animals in a zoo as we heard their stories and saw where they lived. Once we were able to have small discussions with the English-speaking asylum seekers away from those who ran the center, their desperation and hopelessness soon became clear. I heard stories from men who were well-educated and held high status jobs in their home country until they were shot at and forced to flee for their lives, often having to leave their families and everything they care about behind. They came to Denmark either because they were stopped en route to Sweden or because they heard Denmark would be a good place for them to live. That was before family reunification switched from one year after obtaining refugee status to three years. That was also before it would take a year before getting your first interview to even start the refugee application process. To incorporate the asylum seekers into Danish culture and make it easier for them to get a job once they become a refugee, the center provides Danish language classes. However, the people we talked to conveyed to us that it was pointless to learn a language when their chances of becoming a refugee in Denmark were so slim and when they would be kicked out as soon as the war back home stopped even if the country was still unstable.
The most infuriating part of the visit was my small discussion with the asylum seekers and the people who ran the center. There was such a cultural divide between them that prevented any mutual understanding. Those in charge were obviously well-intentioned, but by trying to make everyone Danish and equal, they failed to understand the importance of other cultures. Actually, I misspoke; they didn’t fail to understand because they admitted that they didn’t even try to understand. Instead they proceeded to invalidate the experiences and cultures of the asylum seekers by adding that they knew more about Middle Eastern countries because they had read a lot about them. When the asylum seekers tried to respond, their voices were drowned out by rhetoric saying that it was best for everyone to assimilate and become Danish. I was at this center for only a few hours, and I was already about to burst. One man I spoke to said that he would rather die back in his home country than live here in madness and depression.
After this, we went for one of our grand dinners and laughed and returned to our normal lives. And they didn’t.
Alexa Jordan | London, England | Post 2

Alexa Jordan | London, England | Post 2

The halfway mark for my program is coming up next week (along with my 21st birthday), AND I just got back from my first trip to Paris! One of my close friends from high school is studying abroad there.

Alexa in front of the Eiffel Tower
Alexa in front of the Eiffel Tower

It’s so unreal, and yet, not so hard to believe. Yes, sometimes I look around my room and remember when I was unpacking, but this weekend on my way back from the train station, it hit me that I was thinking, “I’m so excited to get back home.” I really do feel at home here. My little flat is oh-so-cozy, I feel totally comfortable navigating the tube alone, and I even have favorite little areaslike the canal behind our building, or the Notting Hill Gate neighborhood where I do my grocery shopping.

IMG_1142

One of my absolute favorite things about London is how easy it is to get tickets for shows. I’ve seen so much theaterfrom Beautiful, to Hand to God, to Red Velvet, to In The Heights, and moreand have even more coming up!

 

IMG_1214IMG_0837IMG_0670

LAMDA is taking us on a three-day field trip to Stratford this week, where we’ll be seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Dr. Faustus, and I’m seeing a completely improvised musical tomorrow night after classes!

I’ve also seen more sites, like the Natural History Museum and Royal Albert Hall, and just walked around more neighborhoods. One of my favorites was Maida Vale. There’s a really pretty area within it called Little Venice with an amazing canal. We also walked down Warwick Avenuewhich is the name of a song by a British singer named Duffy that I’ve been listening to for years!

IMG_0938

On top of all the adventures, my classes and rehearsals are keeping me extremely busy as well. There isn’t really straightforward homework that we have to hand in, but we’re expected to practice our monologues/scenes with exercises that we learn in class, review combinations for stage combat throughout the week, memorize lines, learn our songs, do research on characters/time periods and practice example sentences in RPReceived Pronunciation, which is essentially me learning how to speak with a British accent. It’s very hard to do right, but so so cool. “Homework” really feels more like beneficial exploring/investigating/growing. There may be times when I’m tired, but I never sit down and think, “oh, I have to do this work because it was assigned,” and that’s a huge deal for me. I love my classes at Vassar, but it’s just been so exciting and liberating to study theatre 24/7. Figuring out how to balance my time between working on a script for rehearsal, keeping up with classes and making time to just relax has been the best kind of challenge.

We just started working on our new scenes from the restoration period (a.k.a. Comedy of Manners), and I’m having a blast. We’ve created such a fun, productive rehearsal space just from coming in with good attitudes and being open. Our director, Emma, puts huge emphasis on being positive, cultivating play and fully investing in the work.

The room in the Holy Innocents Church in Ravenscourt where Alexa has rehearsal.
The room in the Holy Innocents Church in Ravenscourt where Alexa has rehearsal.

We’re rehearsing in a beautiful church in Ravenscourt (it’s really common for actors to rehearse in churches here), but the downside is that the key for our room is kept at LAMDA, and someone from our ensemble has to pick it up whenever we rehearse every Tuesday and Thursday. So, every day after the lunch break, the person who retrieved the key leaves the room while the rest of us plan a little surprise to thank them. Last Thursday, I picked up the key. When I came back in the room for my surprise, everyone was frozen with their arms stretched out and smiles on their faces. Emma told me that they would lead me to my surprise, so I began walking around the room. After about thirty seconds of just staring at my frozen classmates, Emma told me that I might want to look a little closer, so I, very confusedly, stepped a little closer to someone. They immediately gave me a hug and whispered, “thank you, key fairy.” It took me about two more hugs to realize that that was my surprise: a hug and a thank you from every single person (plus a bar of chocolate at the end). I was so touched that I seriously almost cried. I was practically glowing the rest of rehearsal. I can’t wait to bring that kind of joy to someone else in my group this week, and furthermore, I really want to spread that kind of positivity and gratitude in rehearsal spaces when I come back next year and wherever I go. It really makes such a difference when everyone in an ensemble feels safe and supported.

All the teachers at LAMDA make us feel so comfortable when trying out new, often very challenging things. Yes, we get overwhelmed sometimesbut I feel like I’m being constantly reminded and reassured that all I’m doing is trying something new. The word “try” could really be my program’s motto. My teachers care way more about us throwing ourselves into whatever we’re doing than how “well” we do or like things. It’s okay if a certain monologue exercise for noticing punctuation doesn’t resonate with me. At the end of the day, we’re just learning what works for us and fits into our individual processes. The way I see it, the more you put in, the more you get out of this program. We really have the freedom to not only design how we handle our time and responsibilities, but also to choose what works for us and what doesn’t once we’ve given it a chance.

As incredible as this city and this program areI fall in love with something different every dayI do have to admit that I’m starting to get a little homesick. Not in a “wow, I don’t want to be where I am” way, but in a “yes, I love where I am, but I also miss walking down my street, or grabbing lunch with my best friends, or hanging out with my a cappella group (Beauty and the Beats: I miss you all to pieces)” way. It’s weird to plan stuff like my housing, classes for next year, senior project, etc. here, but it also kind of helps me remind myself that I’m coming back. This time is temporary, and remembering that makes me value each day even more.

Until next time!

Elizabeth Dean | London, England | Post 3

Elizabeth Dean | London, England | Post 3

Per my promise in my previous blog, I have traveled to Dublin since my last post. It was a fantastic experience. Not only was it my first time traveling alone, but Dublin is also a vibrant city with a lot to see and domore than I could get to! I also went on a trip to Howth, a small peninsula outside Dublin that extends into the sea. I saw landscapes that I couldn’t believe were real, and I had to put my hands in the grass to convince myself that I hadn’t wandered into a Lord of the Rings prequel set.

12401849_10208642478159821_3897237018213492479_o

I also went on an accidental but lovely hikebut I’ll start at the beginning.

I arrived in the evening after taking a flight from London to Dublin (unbelievably cheap, if quite cramped, plane seats are offered by budget airlines in Europe). My first sight of Ireland leaving the airport were the signs and bus schedule screens: they were in both English and Irish. I had read about the efforts to revive Irish as an everyday language throughout the country, but I was surprised and excited (and a little disoriented) to see Irish-first English-second signs throughout the airport.

Upon leaving the airport, I took the bus to my youth hostel in the center of Dublin. I was able to drive through the city center at night, soaking up the sights of O’Connell Street, The Spire, and the River Liffey. It was my first time staying a youth hostel, and I have to say it was more fun than I expected. The energy of hundreds of other students speaking different languages and getting excited for a pub crawl was worth the frustration of sharing a dorm room with 19 other girls, some of whom liked to make loud phone calls at 4 a.m. (looking at you, bunk 14). There is a nice camaraderie in a youth hostel, especially for a young woman like me traveling alone, even when that is the silent solidarity of 30-odd hungover 20-somethings eating cereal in a youth hostel where nobody speaks each other’s language.

While in Dublin, I visited Dublin Castle, Christ Church Cathedral, Kilmainham Gaol, Trinity College, the Chester Beatty Library and the Temple Bar area.

Dublin Castle
Dublin Castle
Christ Church Cathedral
Christ Church Cathedral

Probably my top two activities in Dublin were a musical pub crawl that I found online and seeing the Book of Kells in Trinity College. The pub crawl took a group of tourists around to several pubs in central Dublin outside of the main tourist strip (but which still had very fun names like Ha’penny Inn and Madigan’s). The guide/musicians performed at every pub, telling us the history of Irish music from medieval court harping to traditional acoustic sessions and modern “Celtic rock.”

The next day, I managed to get myself out early enough to reach Trinity College before it was crowded to see the Book of Kells, a beautifully illuminated manuscript of the Gospels from about the ninth century. The Book of Kells is one of Ireland’s great historic and cultural treasures, and it was a really moving experience to see the pages spread out in the display case right in front of me. No pictures are allowed in the exhibit, and I found myself staring at it really hard in hopes I’ll never forget how beautiful it is.

Elizabeth in the Trinity College library
Elizabeth in the Trinity College library

On my last day in Ireland, I took a bus about an hour outside of Dublin to see the fishing village of Howth. The landscape was breathtaking, featuring scraggy cliffs, blue-green ocean and crumbling stone ruins.

12646708_10208642476759786_863770872494659030_o

12694992_10208642471119645_959233946192332485_o

I was enthusiastic to see as much of the peninsula as possible, and despite wearing normal street clothes decided to embark on a walk along the cliffs. One sign pointed me to a “Howth Loop” walk that promised to guide me safely around the cliffs and back into town where my bus stop was. The sign did tell me that the walk was seven kilometers, but I still have no solid conception of metric distances and decided that seven km probably wasn’t very long. Unfortunately, seven km is just over four miles, and on Howth seven km is just over four miles of muddy, rocky hiking. I was totally unprepared and returned to town about two hours later in muddy skinny jeans with bruised knees, but the accidental hike was totally worth the views and photos.

12628468_10208642480639883_6915442051957285866_o 12640365_10208642484719985_2205265189781895952_o


Next weekend I plan to go on a far more luxurious trip to Paris, where I hope to be a little bit less muddy. I can’t wait to update you all then!

Ian Snyder | Oxford, England | Post 1

Ian Snyder | Oxford, England | Post 1

My study abroad experience has been one for the history books thus far. From the very beginning, I have been dazzled by beautiful sights and powerful moments. The first happened right in the beginning when I got to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic Ocean on my flight to London.

ian1

Upon arriving in London, I made my way through customs and passed across the UK border. This was the first time I had ever stepped foot on foreign soil. Nothing felt any different whatsoever, and life went on as usual. My next step in my journey was to set myself up with the most critical thing a human being can posses…cell phone service. So I made my way to a vending machine that literally spits out SIM cards to stick in your phone. It’s amazing how such a tiny thing can have so much power. I soon left London Heathrow Airport (a little annoyed that the luggage people had ripped my brand new suitcase) and got on a train to downtown where I would meet my Vassar friend Michael Woods ‘17 (JYA at the London School of Economics) to spend the night.

This was the first thing I saw when I got off the subway.

ian2

Sunsets actually look the same in other countries. The only difference is that people drive on the wrong side of the road here, and it took me over five minutes to garner the courage to cross my first street. I made my way to Michael’s flat and enjoyed the sunset view of the London skyline from his apartment balcony. Mama, I’ve made it. I would like to extend a special thanks to Michael for setting me up with the best accommodations for my first night abroad. Here we are in front of Big Ben.

ian3
Ian Snyder ’17 and Michael Woods ‘17

We even took a nice night tour and got to see sites like Buckingham Palace (the Main Building of London). Long live the queen. #British

Buckingham Palace
Ian in front of Buckingham Palace

The following morning I made my journey to Oxford, which involved lugging my two huge suitcases through the London subway and walking more than a comfortable number of miles with them in hand. The English countryside is quite beautiful though, and filled with specks of white sheep.

ian6

I finally arrived in Oxford, the “intellectual center of the world,” or so I hear.

It has old buildings. This one is Balliol College, photographed on my walk to my college, St. Catherine’s College.

ian7Oxford is broken up into 38 constituent colleges that comprise the university as a whole. Every student belongs to a particular college and calls it home. Our college is where we have our meals, study in the library and sleep. St. Catherine’s is the newest and largest college (by population) in Oxford. It has a modern 1960s vibe to it, and thus I have coined it the Noyes of Oxford. Apparently a very famous architect built it, but, like Noyes, it sticks out from the rest of the university like a sore thumb.

Fortunately, I don’t actually live in St. Catherine’s (Catz), as I was given the option to have a single room outside of Catz and was placed in New College. New, deceptively, was built in 1379 and is a true castle with at least one Harry Potter scene credit. Here is one part of the college. (The white shopping bag in the corner is mine.)

ian9

Unfortunately, I actually live in the peasant’s quarters outside of the castle, which I won’t show here for reasons of embarrassment and shame. All the St. Catz visiting students, of which there are maybe 50, had teatime with the administrators where we learned the ropes of being at Oxford (kind of). One thing I have learned is that, when in doubt, say “cheers.” When somebody says “cheers” to you, the only possible appropriate response is “cheers.” This can cause problems as sometimes you fall into a perpetual spiral of cheerful conversation from which it is impossible to emerge.

Oxford is a beautiful city; there is nowhere else in the world like it, and I would fight  anybody who would argue differently (Cambridge ain’t got nothing). Here is the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford’s Bodleian Library system and an iconic site in the city. (Note the casual scarf look.)

ian10

Being that Oxford is considered one of the most prestigious universities on Earth, it should come to no surprise that they actually have schoolwork here. However, it’s not really too bad, and I find myself with huge amounts of free time that I never enjoy at Vassar. Oxford uses the tutorial system—one-on-one class with tutors who are professionals in the subject you are studying. Tutorials are once a week for about an hour, and for each one you write an essay on the topic that will be reviewed and critiqued by the tutor. They range anywhere from six to ten or more pages. My two tutorials this term (which is called Hilary term) are evolutionary/medical genetics and immunology. In genetics, I have most recently been studying gene-culture co-evolution. My past topics have included: “Admixture events with archaic Homo species inferred from ancient and modern DNA,” “Archaic adaptive introgression in Humans” and “Population structure: Human races and Chimpanzees subspecies.” I just had my first immunology tutorial yesterday, in which I learned about macrophages, neutrophils and mast cells (if anybody cares). I find the topics to be quite fascinating, and I feel that I am learning more effectively than I would at Vassar.

I’ve made some great friends here at Oxford, and I have met some incredibly influential scholars at talks put on by the colleges and by Oxford’s Chabad and Jewish Society, which are both clubs that I have become quite involved in. There are so many events to attend here, but my favorite activity is always visiting new colleges. Everyone is unique and beautiful like no other. The dining halls are quite different from the Deece, to say the least.

I would like to extend a special shout-out to those who have become some of my closest friends at Oxford, the men colloquially known as the “Black Beanie Boys,” for reasons that will go unmentioned.

This is Oxford Chabad with Holocaust survivor Dr. Ben Helfgott, who went on to become the only known concentration camp survivor to have participated in the Olympics when he captained the British Olympic Weightlifting Team.

ian12

I even got a visit from my Vassar buddy Walter Gabriel ‘17 who came in from Edinburgh to see what this place was all about. We went to the top of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin and took some nice pictures.

ian13

There’s so much more to say, and so much more to do and learn. I’m heading to London tomorrow with some other Vassar friends who came to visit. ‘Til next time, cheers!

Matthew McCardwell | Paris, France | Post 1

Matthew McCardwell | Paris, France | Post 1

Bonjour, salut, coucou, my name is Matthew McCardwell, and I am a junior Art History major at Vassar, currently “studying abroad” in the city of lights, Paris, France. As Nicole pointed out in her blog entry, the Vassar Wesleyan Program in Paris (VWPP) group has been exploring since the 7th of January. The first three weeks in Paris have been a grand tourbillon: our first few days discovering the city from the vantage of our hostel; the love affair between my brain, my mouth, and the French language; flanêur-ing in Saint Germain de Près; window-shopping in the cobbled vanelles of the Marais; and being brought to tears at the expositions of Anselm Kiefer and Wilfredo Lam. My hope is to share tidbits of this journey with the Vassar community and any friends and family who glean my blog entry.

Moving anywhere involves a certain ebb and flow that often cannot be predicted. I experienced this moving from Kentucky to Poughkeepise and then to New York City last summer. Paris is no exception, but luckily the Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris has a matchmaking wizard named Lisa Fleury who selected the perfect host family for my brief semester in the île de France.

My hosts live in a beautiful apartment on the right side of the Seine. They are as obsessed with art as I am and frequent the many openings at the Centre Pompidou (colloquially referred to as Beaubourg). In addition, my host mother restores paintings in her atelier adjacent to my room. Living with my host parents is as if I have popped out of a chapter of My Life in France by Julia Child. My host mother prepares eloquent French delicacies like zucchini bisque, onion quiche, and crêpes with gruyere and fresh eggs. My host father is a wine connoisseur, and we are making a tour of the many regions with each new bottle. Also, the fromage is incredible. I have sampled about twenty varieties of cheese and each poses a new goût before my taste buds. In addition, their French is beautiful and slow, allowing me to comprehend most of it. And for days when la langue français is beyond me, and the Paris rain isn’t as magical as films make it out to be, I have a bed fit for a queen where I have happily binged on Netflix for the first time since coming to Vassar.

The apartment is in the eighth arrondissement (the system that separates the neighborhoods in Paris), which is around the corner from Gare Saint Lazare, a train station that I used to visit Rouen last weekend. The neighborhood itself is an interesting mixture between tourists, business people and inhabitants, meaning there is also an incredible mixture between fast food, brasseries and the two fashionable shopping malls called “Printemps” and “Galeries Layfayette.” As Madame Fleury put it, there is always beaucoup du monde.

 

On Arriving

When we landed in Charles de Galle airport, Landon Kramer ’17, myself and a nouvelle amie Ana (Wesleyan ’17) immediately exited the plane and sprinted towards the city of lights. Bien sûr (a coy way of saying “of course” in French), we walked ourselves through a revolving door that closed behind us, allowing us to pass through a completely different terminal of the airport, through customs and out to the arrivals terminal where, bien sûr, our baggage was nowhere to be found: thus the hysterics of France had begun. We wandered through the airport that was teeming with armed guards, asking how to retrieve our bags, speaking in broken French, essentially asking to re-enter the airport without having to go through security. Alas.

We quickly remedied this with a stroll through the 13th arrondissement (where the program had us stay in a hostel for the first couple nights). We ate baguettes with camembert and drank the two-euro Bordeaux that has become a staple in my diet.

Matthew's first night in Paris
Matthew’s first night in Paris

 

Paris is a city that sleeps

After spending time in New York City, it is fairly incredible that there is nowhere to go at night. After about 8 P.M. the entire city shuts down. Between then and midnight, only restaurants and bars are open, and at midnight the subway starts to shut down. So if you find yourself walking around after one or two in the morning–because you missed the subway or just really needed one more verre–you will find yourself alone wandering the streets of Paris.

 

Weekend in Jura

As a part of our orientation agenda, a lovely weekend to the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, which is in the department of Jura, was arranged to discover the mountains and culture that shares a border with Switzerland. I was able to experience the TGV (the high-speed rail that can take you all over France) for the first time. We departed on a Friday, visiting a petit fromagerie in a town between Besançon and Rochejan. We tasted the region’s delicacies like l’Edel de Cleron (a creamy cheese with a very strong taste) and Comté (a hard cheese, almost like a French parmesan). Afterwards we checked into the very tiny town of Rochejan where we were treated to a night of music and fondue.

Music in Rochejan
Music in Rochejan

The next morning, we made the journey to Jura to snowshoe up Mon d’Or. The entire activity was hilarious as the sixteen or seventeen of us scaled the mountain with two trusty guides, all decked out in tennis racket-esque snowshoes. From the summit we could see the peaks of Mont Blanc in the Swiss Alps. Once we were halfway down, the guides led us to a lovely cottage on the side of the mountain to have a grand lunch of potato tartes and a mushroom dish for the vegetarians, and bien sûr wine from the region.

Matthew McCardwell and Jordyn Matthews '17 at the Summit of Mont d'Or (by Landon Kramer '17)
Matthew McCardwell and Jordyn Matthews ’17 at the Summit of Mont d’Or (by Landon Kramer ’17)

For our third day, we explored the ancient city of Besançon with a lovely walking tour of the city and its many spectacles. Afterwards we were able to spend several hours in the beautiful cathedrals, the Maison de Victor Hugo (where he only lived for two weeks of his life) and a few adorable bakeries (which were the only shops open on Sunday).

The Arch of Besancon
The Arch of Besancon

 

Classes in France/French

After spending the first few weeks of orientation relearning the basic structures of grammar and syntax in a new French context, we began classes. I am taking three at Reid Hall, the American university building in Paris, which is very beautiful and operated by Columbia. My professors are incredibly sweet and each speak with a cadence that I can understand.

Garden at Reid Hall
Garden at Reid Hall

On another note entirely, the Sorbonne is horrific. I am taking one course at the Arts and Archeology building, which is two blocks away from the Jardin du Luxemborg. From the exterior, this brick building looks regal, almost majestic. But the classes are huge and both my Art History professor and TA spoke rapid French. In addition, all of the students appear to already know each other, thus making friends was incredibly difficult the first week. I also do not speak a word of the French slang that the students use, which literally flips words inside out in a manner similar to Pig Latin.

 

Only in France

Each day presents a new French or Parisien cliché, some better than others. For instance:

There is always someone playing the accordion–on the subway, outside of the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Rouen, next to any tourist attraction–and you can be sure that it is always an Edith Piaf classic.

 

The other night the couple who live above me were having a fête (that ended promptly at 11:45 so that everyone could take the subway home). So for the last 15 minutes they played the Celine Dion classic “On ne change pas,” on repeat. I had it in my head for the entire week.

My new friend from Wesleyan, Annie, and I enrolled in a gym this week, and on our first day something truly French happened. We were on the ellipticals, working out to Tame Impala, when a man who had very obviously just finished a serious lifting session strolled past eating an entire box of chocolate Bonne Maman cookies.

Paris est une fête, ça c’est sûr.

Morgan Strunsky | Exeter, England | Post 1

Morgan Strunsky | Exeter, England | Post 1

As I scrambled to finish packing my bags the night before I was scheduled to depart for Exeter, England (procrastination helps to settle my nerves), I had some time to reflect on my impending adventure. I was set to achieve two personal milestones: one immediate, the other more long-term. To begin, I had never traveled alone, and the next day’s journey promised to be the globetrotting equivalent of joining the Polar Bear Club as a means of learning how to swim. Secondly, I had never spent more than a couple of weeks outside of the States, and the prospect of over five months in a foreign land weighed heavily on my already-vulnerable sense of motivation. Deep down inside, however, there flickered within me the oh-so-faint spark of excitement that one feels before a performance, or on a first date, or after plugging in a USB cord the correct way on the first try. I contemplated that spark as I attempted to slip into an inevitably fitful rest before the harrowing voyage that lay ahead of me.

The normally two-hour-long journey from my house to JFK International Airport seemed to take six. The first hour and a half went by smoothly; the last half hour took longer than the final few percent of a particularly stubborn download. As we pulled up to the curb near the terminal, my mother (who had, to her credit, held it together remarkably well up until this point) burst into the obligatory “five-months-is-an-eternity” mom-tears. A couple of hugs and a damp shoulder later, and I was off to conquer the airport solo.

With Murphy’s Law in mind, we had made the sensible decision to schedule plenty of spare time for me to navigate the various security checkpoints and labyrinthine halls of the airport. Naturally, the whole check-in process took an astoundingly brief twenty minutes, and I was left with several hours to kill. Luckily, a television near my gate was broadcasting the AFC Wildcard game, and I had the privilege of watching the Chiefs trounce the Texans 30-0. I sighed a sigh of relief: everything had gone off without a hitch. Or so I had thought.

As I went to board my plane, I was stopped at the gate by a particularly zealous employee who insisted that he check the size of my carry-on bag, which he asserted was too large to carry on. This was the selfsame carry-on bag that had passed all previous checkpoints and measurings un-confiscated. After jamming my luggage into his measuring apparatus, he told me that I would need to check my bag at the gate, and that it would be delivered to Heathrow Airport, my destination, with the rest of my luggage. I begged him for some assurance that I would be reunited with my bag upon landing, but he merely looked at me in a way that said “I don’t get paid enough to make that kind of promise.” And so I boarded sans carry-on.

The seven-or-so-hour-long flight from JFK to Manchester (from which I had a short connecting flight to Heathrow) can only be described as middling. Plagued by cramped seats and neighbors who calmed their nerves with wine and small talk, I got almost no sleep. And while the food was edible enough, the in-flight movie was in Spanish, and my seat refused to recline, resulting in a generally mediocre experience. Traumas aside, we landed in Manchester, I made it to my connecting flight after just a small amount of sprinting, and I soon found myself at Heathrow Airport.

A view of London from the airplane
A view of London from the airplane

When considering tragedy, one usually believes themselves to be immune. “That sort of thing happens to other people,” they say; “Never in a million years,” they say; “Nothing will go wrong,” they say. But as I waited diligently at Heathrow Airport Terminal Five, the same unfamiliar luggage making its fourth lazy trip around the conveyor belt, I knew that the impossible had occurred – that tragedy had struck: my carry-on was lost, misplaced somewhere between the Big Apple and the Big Smoke.

Tired, hungry, concerned, tired, disgruntled, hungry, tired, and in a hurry – relics of my deep-seated American sensibilities – I made my way to the nearby lost luggage station where I was greeted by a friendly gentleman by the name of Simon (names have been changed to protect the innocent). Having become accustomed to the time-of-day-withholding attitude of the American Northeast, Simon’s cordiality and honest desire to assist me took me aback. The fact that he was merely doing his job aside, the way in which he carried himself was wholly foreign to me. He was lighthearted, he was reassuring, and, above all, he was genuinely helpful.

My luggage claim filed, I wandered my way toward the London Underground, oversized suitcase in hand (luckily my main bag had made the trip unscathed), looking as much like a tourist as is possible. I boarded the train, and was met with several dirty looks for having the audacity to travel with a bag. After a series of miraculously skillful transfers between trains, I found myself at Paddington Station (read: “British Grand Central”). Again paying Murphy his dues, I was a staggering four hours early for my train to Exeter from Paddington.

Paddington Station

For those unaware, Paddington Station is an open-air facility, and my decision to wear shorts on the plane was violently backfiring as the sub-freezing temperatures crept their way into my very core. Huddled in a corner for warmth, I spent the next four hours people-watching (an all-time favorite hobby of mine). After my eternity of a wait, it was finally time to embark on the final leg of my journey: the three-hour ride from Paddington to Exeter. Much to my delight, the train was heated and relatively empty. As such, I was able to catch up on some much needed sleep, and before long I had arrived at my ultimate destination.

After fifteen hours of ups and downs, of highs and lows, of peaks and valleys, I had learned a valuable lesson: always wear pants when you travel.

Shereen Sodder | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

Shereen Sodder | Bologna, Italy | Post 1

I’ve been in Bologna for about four weeks now, and I’m still getting used to the lifestyle and cultural differences here. Probably the most pressing cultural difference for me is the great quest to find tea in a country that pretty much drinks exclusively coffee. Tea does exist here, but it’s mostly the shitty store brand ones or weird flavored teas I can’t be bothered with or one centigram of chai for 15 euros. I’ve also had to get used to the strong judgment for drinking the tap water; it’s about as hard as Vassar water in my opinion, but everyone seems to think that it’s not at all safe. Since I didn’t bring my trusty Brita water bottle, however, for the sake of taste I’ve been buying giant bottles of water and carrying it around in a milk bottle. I do find it rather amusing that I’ve gone dangerously beyond the Vassar Mason jar in such a short amount of time despite my confusion towards mason jar users. (On that note: where do you guys put your jam if all of your jars are in use? What’s wrong with conventional reusable water bottles? Is there a reason to use empty salsa jars instead? Because I have seen that, and I am worried about you.) It’s also ironic that despite being really serious about separating out trash and recycling into four different collection bins, Italians are really into drinking bottled water instead of using reusable bottles or filters. So close to helping the Earth, guys, so close.

Another cultural difference is the absence of a drinking age in Italy. There is an actual drinking age (16 for wine and beer, 18 for everything else), but being able to drink doesn’t mean anything here because everyone does. This made my 21st birthday slightly anticlimactic. My night started out with an aperitivo at a wine cafe in central Bologna. For those of you poor souls who’ve never experienced this, an aperitivo consists of a pre-dinner drink (traditionally a spritz, but can be anything) and snack. This place had a very intense snack. We were given endless bread and individual plates of mozzarella, tomato and onion jam, olives and mortadella. It doesn’t sound like much typing it here, but in Bologna all of those things are about 200 times better than they are in America. Next was dinner at Osteria dell’Orsa, a recommendation from a friend (hi Marya) where there is amazing homemade pasta for ten euros or less. I enjoyed my tagliatelle al ragu (a.k.a. bolognese) even more knowing that I will never have to eat at the deece again for as long as I live. Sorry I brought it up. After dinner we went to actual bars, a nice change from Svedka in the dorms/being packed like anchovies into the THs. Though the night was definitely filled with its shenanigans (about which I won’t go into detail for the sake of any parents or professors reading this), it was pretty tame for a 21st; I managed to remove my makeup and contact lenses, take a shower, and go to bed at a reasonable hour. Of course I was drunk while doing this, so waking up at 7 a.m. the next morning to catch a train was really really great.

That train was to Modena, where we spent the day touring the city’s duomo, eating tons of amazing food and searching for balsamic vinegar.

duomo di Modena +bell tower and flea market
Duomo di Modena, bell tower and flea market in Modena
Palazzo Ducale in Modena
Palazzo Ducale in Modena

The city is famous for the vinegar, but it is also very expensive, i.e. I will go back to Modena later in the semester and use my parents’ money to buy vinegar as a “souvenir” instead of cutting into my food allowance provided by my program. I also plan on going back so I can enjoy the city without a terrible hangover and lactose nausea, which is a very fun combination. Being lactose intolerant has been an issue since all things dairy are quite prevalent in Italian food, but the great abundance of pharmacies here means that my saviour L. acidophilus is readily available. Also: parmesan cheese aged for over 24 months doesn’t have lactose in it, so I might just eat exclusively that for the next four months.

I’ve also been going to class this whole time. My semester-long courses start next week, but for the past three weeks I have been taking an intensive Italian course as a review for how to actually use this language, which was pretty helpful after spending all of my winter break watching Buffy and Tom Cruise movies on an endless loop. Part of this course involved learning about the history of Bologna and the university here, which is the oldest one in Europe (est. 1088). The university didn’t have any actual buildings until the 1500s, when the Pope purchased land near the growing Basilica San Petronio and built the Archiginnasio, which houses the wood-paneled Teatro Anatomico (basically a room where the medical students would dissect cadavers to learn about how the human body works). 

Teatro Anatomico
Teatro Anatomico

I was told that the Pope did this in order to halt the construction of the Basilica, which stood to become larger than St. Peter’s in the Vatican City. I’ve also heard that the real reason for why the Basilica was never completed is that all of the people funding the project lost all their money playing cards. Both seem equally plausible.

Basilica San Petronio
Basilica San Petronio

This initial course is now coming to an end, which means that I’ll have to start taking real classes at the university and within my program. The course shopping phase over the next few weeks should be interesting and/or very stressful, as most of the classes I’m looking at are in areas in which I’ve never taken a class before, like semiotics and sociolinguistics. Hopefully I’ll be able to find something that works out, but until then I’ll be hiding behind my laptop watching the newly-available Italian Netflix or using Aperol spritzes and cones of french fries to ease my worries. Probably just the fries, though.

Nicole Howell | Paris, France | Post 1

Nicole Howell | Paris, France | Post 1

Hello from Paris!

As of right now, I’ve been in Paris for three weeks, and it has already been a huge whirlwind of fun, stress, and excitement! So many things have happened already in this short amount of time that a review of all of them is honestly impossible, so instead I’m going to focus more generally on what this initial adjustment period has been like for me.

Studying abroad has been something I have looked forward to for a long time; I’m a French and Francophone Studies major at Vassar and I’ve studied the language since middle school, but this is my first time in France or any French-speaking country. This context has been a defining factor of these past few weeks for me, mostly because I had to jump right into being a student without first having the chance to be a tourist. Day one in Paris was a jet-lagged haze of meeting the other students on the program and of falling asleep by 9 p.m., and then on day two, orientation was already in full swing. Within the next few days, we ate bagged lunches that honestly made the Deece look ideal, went and bought French SIM cards for our phone, moved in with our host families, opened French bank accounts, and had lectures on grammar and culture and safety. We were told from the moment we got off the plane to try to shed our American ways and not look or behave like “tourists” (which, I admit, is a very important part of the JYA experience).

image1
Being a tourist in front of the Arc de Triomphe

…But at the same time… a “tourist” is exactly what I wanted to be when I first arrived! Almost everyone else on the program has already been to France at least once, but for me, I’d never seen the sights, climbed the Eiffel Tower, strolled the Champs-Elysees, eaten a real French croissant or baguette or éclair or macaron (as you can tell, food is an incredibly important part of my ideal abroad experience). I know that those things aren’t indicative of “real” Parisian life, and I certainly don’t want my entire semester to be defined by those cardboard cutouts of French culture, but I have to do them all at least once! And finding the time to do those things was–and still is–pretty challenging. I still haven’t climbed the Eiffel Tower, it took me a week to check out the Arc de Triomphe, I’ve only been to two museums, and a full two weeks had passed before I purchased my first croissant (which honestly just seems so blasphemous to me when I think about it). But now that orientation is over, I’ve had more free time, making it easier to find the right balance between settling into my temporary life here, while also still getting to experience the touristy side of things too.

image2
Though she hasn’t climbed the Eiffel Tower yet, Nicole has seen it from afar while exploring the quartier where she lives.
image3
The incredible view from the top of each side of the Arc de Triomphe. If you’re planning on visiting it too, Nicole recommends you wear comfy shoes and go just before sunset.

That being said, there have already been a few times where I’ve had an afternoon or a couple hours of free time, and I spent the entirety of that time trying to figure out what to do with that time, never even leaving the apartment. As anyone who is friends with me at Vassar can attest to, if I am presented with too many options, I get easily overwhelmed, can’t make decisions, and then end up doing nothing instead. This happens all the time with me in the small scale of the Vassar bubble, so you can imagine how likely this is to happen in a big foreign city with literally endless options each day.

This is not a habit I want to continue while in Paris, because I’m only here for four months and want to make the most out of every moment I have! So to combat this tendency, I’ve since created several to-do lists to motivate me: one list for sights to see, one for stores to shop in, one for renowned chocolatiers and pastry shops to test out (a.k.a. the most important list), and one for bars and restaurants to go to (a.k.a. the second most important list). The lists are helping me be both spontaneous and decisive (a difficult balance for me to strike), and they’ve already made a big difference for me!

image5
A veal stew with a glass of wine from the amazing restaurant Cocottes
image4
A delicious tarte au chocolat from Cocottes

In any case, these past few weeks have been defined by adjustments of all different types and magnitudes. Moving in with my host family (whom I had never spoken to before I showed up at their door) was–and still is–a big adjustment. Using mustard as an extremely common condiment here: small adjustment. Taking public transportation everywhere for the first time in my life: big (but surprisingly easy) adjustment. Communicating exclusively in a language that I previously only ever used twice a week in class at a speaking level so basic that even the 11-year old kid in my host family corrects my grammar: huge (and exhausting yet still rewarding) adjustment. Being able to drink legally in a country that loves wine as much as I do: very easy adjustment.

Despite how overwhelming all of these adjustments are, I am so excited to be here and am looking forward to all of the incredible experiences ahead of me. I’ve only been here three weeks (most of this time being consumed by orientation), but I’ve already eaten the best caramel of my life (Jacques Genin, 10/10 would recommend), snowshoed up a mountain, watched the sunset from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, tried duck confit for the first time (which I enjoyed), tried sausage made from pork intestines (which I did NOT enjoy), been inspired by an incredible exhibit at the Musee de L’Orangerie celebrating women photographers from the 1800s, milked a goat at a local farm, eaten fondu in the Jura mountains and so much more. And even though I still haven’t climbed the Eiffel Tower or eaten a real French éclair, I know that I still have plenty of time ahead of me to do that–and everything else on my lists–as well!

image6
The view from the top made the afternoon of trekking up a mountain entirely worth it.
Elizabeth Dean | London, England | Post 2

Elizabeth Dean | London, England | Post 2

In my last post, I wrote about getting oriented in London and settled at Goldsmith’s. After getting cozy in New Cross, I was ready to venture out and explore London–starting, obviously, with the most touristy things. In my first two weeks as a London resident (*squeal*) I’ve visited St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Barbican Theatre, the Museum of London Docklands, the Design Museum, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Tate Modern, and the Jane Austen House Museum, both on my own and with my group from Vassar. I’ve made my feet very sore, and got a lot of use out of my Oyster card (for public transport).

The first thing I have to say about sightseeing in London is that getting around is pretty easy. London’s public transportation system puts DC’s to shame. The busses, overground, underground, and light rail are all clean, timely, easy to understand, and frankly cute. I’m still excited to jump on to a cherry-red double-decker bus and secretly thrilled to hear the proper-British-accented recording tell me to “alight here for London Underground.” I’m still just too excited and new to the UK to be able to be cool about accents, apparently. Although I did get a bit arrogant my first weekend out on my own, when I triumphantly boarded what I thought was a bus to St. Paul’s, only to take said bus 20 minutes to the end of the line in the wrong direction. I’ve improved, though!

My outing to St. Paul’s Cathedral was both fun and exhausting. I’m a sucker for ornate architecture and historic crypts, but the decision to climb all 300+ steps to the top of the dome was a questionable one. When I made it to the top, the views were worth the climb–but I’m not sure how long it will take for me to surmount the humiliation of pausing to let an old man pass me on the way up the stairs.

12540672_10208505572737271_9046370182350501275_n
St. Paul’s Cathedral
1541_10208505568577167_3428458681115217131_n
View from St. Paul’s Cathedral

I also enjoyed the National Gallery and the British Museum, although the sheer overwhelming volume of artifacts/art in each made it impossible to feel like I was quite finished looking. My favorite thing in the British museum was seeing the artifacts from the ship burial at Sutton Hoo, which will be familiar to any alum of Professor Amodio’s Old English classes who will have seen them on the cover of their textbooks. I felt like a little kid trying to get my face close enough to the glass to see the detail on the Sutton Hoo helmet. Upon leaving the British Museum, I got lost looking for my bus stop (I swear though I’m good at buses now) and ended up having an impromptu walking tour of the Bloomsbury area. Do you think Virginia Woolf ever got lost looking for a bus there?

Aside from my personal (mis)adventures in London, our awesome director plans a lot of outings for the Vassar cadre as a group. This past weekend, my nerd meters were maxed out when we went to visit the Jane Austen House Museum in Chawton, Hampshire. I got to see the house in which Austen wrote and published most of her novels, including the very (small) table that she wrote on until 1817.

12540539_10208579397582846_2050833575243920461_n
Jane Austen’s house in Hampshire

I also enjoyed walking with my group through Chawton and Alton, where I saw quaint stone houses, rolling fields, sheep and cottages with real thatched roofs. Before I saw them I would have been sure than no such thing existed anymore!

12524294_10208579420663423_6509992520136506897_n

Starting this weekend I’m preparing for my biggest outing so far. I’m flying to Dublin on my own to spend a few days in a hostel and explore the city. I’ve never traveled on my own like that, and I’m really excited to see that city and for the opportunity to strike out on my own!