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Month: October 2016

Matt Stein | London, England | Post 3

Matt Stein | London, England | Post 3

As the end of October dawns upon us, London is heading into the Halloween festive mood. While certainly not as monumental a holiday here as it is in the U.S., several pop-up shops have appeared in London, and the baristas are making foam designs of spider webs instead of leaves and hearts. Strangely enough, there’s already been talk about Christmas two months in advance. Just last Saturday, I was in Harrod’s in Kensington, one of the largest department stores in all of Europe, and there was whole wing dedicated to Christmas. Only a small stand was in place for Halloween, but all the Christmas garb was out, tea towels to rocking horses, or reindeer in this case.

Because of some tension within my flat, I’ve taken the liberty of making personal excursions to travel about London on the weekends. My first trip was to Waterstones in Piccadilly, the largest bookstore in Europe. There were eight floors dedicated to different kinds of books. I even came upon a whole wing of books in Russian, aptly named “The Russian Bookstore.” Alan Cumming was also doing a book signing that day. Sadly, I did not have the fortune of taking any photos with him (because I showed up to the event spontaneously without getting tickets beforehand), but I did get to praise his performance in Spice World. I wish.

On one trip, Matt walked to Buckingham Palace in the rain, only to arrive and see a beautiful double rainbow.
On one trip, Matt walked to Buckingham Palace in the rain, only to arrive and see a beautiful double rainbow.
Matt got to have a stoic pose in front of Buckingham Palace, soaked in rain.
Matt got to strike a stoic pose in front of Buckingham Palace, soaked in rain.

Piccadilly’s convenience is that it’s generally close to most things. Leicester Square and Chinatown are just west of it, and Trafalgar Square’s about a 15-minute walk away. While there, however, I decided to traverse my way to Covent Garden. One of my favorite memories was when I was in Covent Garden in 2009 with my family. It may be a bit posh of a place, but there’s just a feeling that surrounds you as if you’ve been filled with some beautiful comfort. It’s as if everything’s there. And there’s even an Apple Store. Street performers are always outside St. Paul’s Church, and an endless row of cozy pubs and quaint shops encompass you at every turn.

During one of his excursions, Matt got to visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and see Van Gogh's paintings.
During one of his excursions, Matt got to visit the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square and see Van Gogh’s paintings.
There's a feeling of wonder and peace in walking around Covent Garden—comfort and curiosity too.
There’s a feeling of wonder and peace in walking around Covent Garden—comfort and curiosity too.

My most recent excursion was to Kensington, where I went to Harrod’s and also the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was hoping to see an exhibit on the late 60s because of my love for Pop Art and Swinging London, but it was sadly sold out. So I got a ticket to ‘Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear’ instead. It can very awkward walking around and seeing the different undergarments of the day. It can also be very relieving to realize that clothes are a lot more relaxed today, as opposed to the dreadful days of corsets, crinolines and long johns. As one who isn’t as fashionably conscious as he wishes, this exhibit has opened doors for the importance of how clothes maketh the man, euphemistically speaking.

Harrod's has a famous Egpytian escalator, which Matt had the pleasure of taking from top to bottom.
Harrod’s has a famous Egpytian escalator, which Matt had the pleasure of taking from top to bottom.

England has a joy for the band Oasis that I’m so glad I can share. I had the fortune of seeing the premiere of Supersonic, a documentary about the band by the director of Amy that included a live Q&A with Liam Gallagher afterwards. I don’t fanboy much, but for this I did. I bought the tickets way in advance and picked an ideal seat for viewing. When I showed up, I think I was the only American in the audience, but for once I was surrounded by people who could also sing along to some of their songs, a rare thing to find in the U.S. I overall loved the documentary, and it was definitely an experience to cherish.

I’ve seen a fair number of shows since my last post as well. Some of the highlights were Oil by Ella Hickson at the Almeida, which studied the moral transgression the British Empire has committed through history in gaining oil and influence, Father Comes Home from the Wars by Suzan-Lori Parks at the Royal Court, which focuses on the role of African Americans, slavery, and the limitations of agency in the Civil War, while striving for universal themes, and Don Giovanni by Mozart at the English National Opera, which reimagined the classical opera in the 1950s and in English instead of Italian. For opera, director Richard Jones brought a breath of fresh air into what many have considered a dying art. The music was generally beautiful, and they managed to make it accessible without the loftiness opera often gets pinned to.

I was also in total shock watching Imogen, which was a reimagined version of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, focusing more on King Cymbeline’s daughter, who seems to have a more important role than the eponymous character. It was at the Globe, the third show I’ve seen there, standing again. This time, I was right under the stage, so when one of the actors was delivering a moving, I was simultaneously getting covered in their spit.

The show I struggled with, but loved nevertheless, was No Man’s Land by Harold Pinter. Pinter in the U.K. is like what Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee is to us. He is a cornerstone in modern English theatre. He also was greatly influenced by Samuel Beckett, which explains the lack of a linear plot and defined characters. He especially took great delight in long pauses, so we have actors running through long monologues before existing in complete silence for a good five minutes until they launch into another one.

The actors in this production included the great Patrick Stewart and his equally-talented friend Ian McKellen. They played best friends who were supposed to be complete strangers, one being a rich poet and the other a poor old busboy at a pub. Also in the cast was Owen Teale, whom many would know as Ser Alliser Thorne on Game of Thrones. He was the main guy who killed Jon Snow. Spoiler alert, I guess.

No Man’s Land’s preshow consisted of bird noises and a curtain with a forest projected on it, so everyone was quite surprised when it rose to reveal an oaken study. Some of the people thought it meant they were inside a giant tree, which makes sense for Pinter. Overall, I was confused and a part of me thinks that was the point.

Seeing the legendary actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man's Land was truly an inspiring opportunity.
Seeing the legendary actors Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in No Man’s Land was truly an inspiring opportunity.

After the show, we were supposed to actually have a Q&A with Patrick Stewart, but sadly his voice was lost and he had to cancel. Instead, we managed to get Owen Teale to speak. He was unable to tell us what was going to happen on GoT, but he did give good acting advice and was a joy to have.

In the next few weeks, a great deal will happen. Our mid-semester break is about to commence, so all classes will be over and we move into productions. My show will be Macbeth, in a role I have yet to be cast in. Other shows are The Magic Forest by Caryl Churchill and The Country Wife by William Wycherley, all three very different. That’ll be the rest of the term. In the meantime, however, I look forward to traveling. I’ll be in Bruges, Paris, and Barcelona, so many adventures are ahead.

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 3

Jennifer Williams | Cairo, Egypt | Post 3

Taking a deep breath, I dove below the surface, letting the cerulean blue enshroud my body. As I looked to my right, my eyes took in the beauty of a coral foundation teaming with life; as I looked to my left, I observed the entrancing waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. Yet everywhere I looked, dozens of bubbles and my clunky snorkeling goggles distorted my perception. My mind was brought back to my childhood dreams of being a mermaid and exploring the deep blue wonders without hindrance. As a kid, I didn’t want the bubbles or goggles to impede my interaction with the ocean waters. I wished desperately that I could interact with the California coast the way I did on shore. The thought of viewing the world on land with a hoard of bubbles or goggles that distort the surrounding images was utterly silly to conceptualize. I was unaware that I constantly sported invisible eyewear akin to snorkeling goggles. I remained oblivious to the sea of bubbles crowding my space. Likewise, I did not understand that my life was and is a bubble of its own. As I grew older and became more acquainted with the plethora of filmy membranes I live with and within, the essence of my mermaid dream shifted form into a general desire to live in any part of the world without constant distortion of my vision—a dream every bit as unachievable as the last. We all walk through life with the constant presence of bubbles and wearing goggles manufactured by society and experience that, in a lot of cases, the cult of capitalism tells us to routinely update. In moving to Egypt, I left the main hub of the Vassar bubble into a different manifestation of the same concept. Whether swimming and snorkeling in the water off the coast of Dahab or living and attending school in Cairo, I interact with and within copious bubbles and look at the world through clunky goggles.

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The majority of my time in Cairo has been spent at the American University, which, similar to Vassar, boasts its own AUC-specific bubble. AUC labels itself as one of the foremost elite liberal arts universities of the Middle East, and with a relatively steep tuition, its students consist largely of the upper echelon. As a result, the AUC demographic creates an environment far removed from the average narrative of a Cairo, or Egyptian, resident. As an AUCian on campus I operate within a closed bubble of privilege that impacts classroom discussions and university culture. In my experience, classroom discussions often utilize a foundation of presumed shared experience of relative wealth and comfort. In my labor economics class, while unpacking the youth bulge and flooded public sector’s impact on employment participation rates, my professor invoked a platform that recent graduates hold the ability to live with their parents without earning wages initially. This platform also included the presence of an allowance throughout school that I have also heard people casually discuss outside of class. These may be products of the culture as well as privilege. I am not insinuating that this is the case for every student or that it is specific to AUC, as various practices of wealth and privilege are found in higher education institutions across the world. However, this premise does influence the classroom narratives and the lens with which classes, professors and students examine different topics. Furthermore, the AUC bubble influences the dynamics of university culture. In my admittedly limited experiences at AUC, I have observed sociocultural characteristics that are based on an upper echelon upbringing, such as the pervasive presence of cleaning workers. In the dorms, the housing fee covers a weekly cleaning and laundry service that one residential life director explained to me comes from the household culture of holding maids. While maids are cheaper in Egypt, holding a maid (and often a live-in maid) is a product of wealth or an attempt to resemble it.

Within the overarching AUC bubble, there is a palpable existence of cliques and established groups of people. These groups often share years of friendship between them fortified by attending the same schools throughout their academic careers. These often private or expensive elementary and secondary schools serve as a younger sibling to the AUC bubble. I cannot unpack the consequences of this, but it is definitely a component when contextualizing the university culture and goggles that impact the lenses of some of the students. Within this realm of separate internal bubbles, I interact within the Western study abroad bubble whereby most of my friends at AUC are fellow Western international students. This is in part because of the international orientation and shared experiences, but also could be the internalization of our own relatively shared privileges. I have been experiencing the AUC world and life in Cairo in a similar manner to my friends where, even off-campus, I interact with Cairo in a distant fashion. For example, I live in an ex-patriot and moderately wealthy district with an American roommate who shares experiences akin to my own. While I do try to make small attempts to integrate myself in other spheres, it has thus far been superficial, partly because of time constraints and partly because of its comfort.

Beyond the abstract bubbles at AUC and in my life, there are also physical bubbles that restrict trans-bubble conjoining. On the AUC campus an hour drive from downtown Cairo, there is a system of security prohibiting copious outside visitors, a lack of external police and AUCian arrests, and the presence of luxuries such as sugar when Egypt is experiencing a sugar shortage. Outside of AUC, it is a similar story where the places I eat, study and work have similar comforts and physical distance from other bubbles. Yet, having only lived in Cairo for the past two months, it feels disingenuous to talk with authority on the various characteristics of the abstract and physical bubbles that surround me without acknowledging the fallibility of goggles I wear on my head while analyzing the various inputs. In the future, my analysis is bound to change, yet it will never be as clear as I thought in my childhood that I could experience as a mermaid.

Jennifer Pineda | Bremen, Germany | Post 3

Jennifer Pineda | Bremen, Germany | Post 3

This weekend, my European Healthcare and Welfare class, which is a seminar specifically for study abroad students, went on an excursion to Berlin. (Thanks Vassar for footing the bill!) There is a lot of American history in Berlin, from the separation of the city into four sectors and the subsequent Berlin Airlift to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The experience of visiting the city and the history it encompasses was definitely a weekend well-spent.

A really nice touch to our weekend stay in Berlin was the fact that our hostel was on the border of where the Berlin Wall was erected. Today, the outline of the wall is visible on the streets through marked bricks on the sidewalks. Alongside this path are informative posts that explain what happened during the time the Wall still existed and what may have happened at that specific area.

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At 8 a.m. the next day, we boarded the bus and set out for the Paul-Löbe-Haus, where the legislative body of the German government offices are located. As part of the curriculum, we met with German Parliament Member Kathrin Vogler. As part of the Bundestag (German legislative body) and the Committee of Health, she explained her position on health policy, especially given the fact that she is a member of the leftist party in a generally conservative government. The meeting was very official, more official than our professors initially thought. In previous years, our professors explained that the meeting tended to be very informal, a simple conference hall meeting. However, to their joy and ours, we were brought to an actual legislative meeting room complete with two interpreters overhead. We enjoyed using the translating headsets and the microphones, as it gave the ambience of an actual legislative meeting. The meeting gave us a deeper insight into how German legislation works compared to how it does in the U.S.

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Following our meeting, our group headed toward a more scientific sight, the “Body Worlds” exhibit at the Menschen Museum. Like other “Body Worlds” exhibits around the world, bodies donated in the name of science are prepped in a way to see certain organ systems. I had never seen a “Body Worlds” exhibit before, nor had I seen a “dead” body. As a pre-med student, the experience was invaluable, as it gave first-hand sights to the body’s anatomy.

(WARNING: MILDLY GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW)

 

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Of course, an excursion to any European city is never really complete if one does not visit the local kirche, or church. In Berlin, the Berliner Dom is one of the must-see sights. The magnificent façade is only matched by the beautiful artwork inside. Just looking at the dome gives the viewer a sense of awe that someone actually spent their time to do that by hand. The level of detail that is seen in the Berliner Dom is one can only hope to experience once in their lives, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

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Besides acting as a functioning cathedral, the catacombs are host to a majority of dead monarchs. Some tombs were extravagantly thought out. Others were very simple. Truth be told, some were not in the best conditions as a result of being dug up after centuries and finally laid to rest there. It was definitely a solemn and humbling experience.

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An excursion is also never memorable unless I am forced to climb up a really tall building with a fear of heights. Thank you 270 steps of the Berliner Dom for reminding me that views like this are always totally worth it and that acrophobia should never hold me back. Also thanks for reminding me how out of shape I am and for giving me my daily dose of cardio.

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To end our scheduled activities for what had been a very busy day (especially for my calves because I wore boots), we toured the Reichstag where the Bundestag actually convenes. The history of the building is certainly tumultuous. A fire that happened there in 1933 gave Hitler and his party reason to implement martial law and gain power over the entire country and eventually plunge the world into World War II. The sentiment at the time was that communists had started it. Nowadays, some conspiracy theorists believe that the Nazi party was behind the fire and framed communists so that they could gain control over the country. Of course, neither had actually been proven, but following the Soviet invasion of Berlin, Stalin insisted on making sure the Soviets had control over the Reichstag as a political statement, most likely because tbh they didn’t really have anything to do with the fire in 1933 so FU Adolf. Soviet soldiers then proceeded to grace the walls of the Reichstag with graffiti. Most writing stated where the soldier came from and where they fought. Others drew penguins. When the Reichstag was remodeled later, a focal point of the restoration was to preserve this history into the building as seen below.

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Also for the second time that day, I would be climbing to the top of a tall building. Thank you Wahito for holding my hand all the way to the top!

After our tour, we were given free time to explore nightlife in Berlin. Fortunately for us, the festival of lights was also happening while we were in town. During the night at certain landmarks around Berlin, picture shows are displayed on the actual landmark. In walking distance from the Reistag is the Brandenburg Gate, where one such light show would occur. Despite the cold, we trekked on to watch. We watched in awe as we watched the structure light up in an array of different colors and visuals. It was a great end to our last night in Berlin.

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We only had one other major stop before heading home. On our way back to Bremen, we stopped by the Olympiastadion Berlin, where the 1936 Summer Olympics took place. This Olympics was marked by Hitler’s desire to show Aryan superiority only to be shut up by African-American track and field athlete Jesse Owen’s four gold medals. I had never been to an Olympic stadium, so to experience it firsthand was checking off another tick on my traveling wish list. Tschüss Berlin!

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John Ammondson | Rabat, Morocco | Post 4

John Ammondson | Rabat, Morocco | Post 4

After a month in Vietnam, with its mid-90s temperatures and humidity ranging from 70 to 100%, stepping out of the airport in Casablanca into the dry, cool Moroccan air felt like paradise. Even if the weather wasn’t so perfect, I’m sure I would still be thoroughly in love with this country! Before making it to Rabat in Morocco, where we are now, our last few days in Vietnam were a bit of a whirlwind. On Sunday (October 9th) we said goodbye to our homestay families in Hoi An and flew down to Ho Chi Minh City, and we were on our plane to Morocco by Tuesday night. Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in Vietnam, provided an interesting contrast to the crowded streets of Hanoi and the relative quietude of Hoi An. The streets were wider (possibly due to the French colonial influence), the traffic slightly more sane, and the Western influence stronger than anywhere else we visited. Our flight to Morocco left Ho Chi Minh City at 8 P.M. on Tuesday night. The first leg of the journey was an eight-hour flight to Abu Dhabi, followed by a seven-hour flight from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca. Many of my classmates wisely elected to do classwork and get readings done; I decided to watch Rush Hour 3, play solitaire and sleep, in that order. I did manage to wake up to catch the sun rising behind our plane, one of the most magical sights I’ve seen abroad thus far (this picture certainly doesn’t do it justice).

Sunrise over Morocco (through an airplane window)
Sunrise over Morocco (through an airplane window)

After one night in a hotel and a day of orientation, on Thursday night we moved into our homestays in the Old Medina of Rabat. The Old Medina is a veritable maze of cobblestone streets and tight corners, making it hard to navigate at first, but many of the buildings are beautifully painted, so getting lost isn’t too much of a hardship. One defining aspect of my stay in Morocco thus far has been bread, called “khobz” in the local Darija Arabic dialect. I truly do not believe that I have ever eaten so much bread in such a short period of time in my entire life. I eat bread with cheese and jam for breakfast, bread alongside rice and lentils for lunch, assorted wheat delicacies at teatime (like fried dough!!), and bread with dinner as well. This emphasis on wheat products has made things something difficult for the gluten-free members of our group, but I have been having the time of my life to be totally honest. The other key (and heavenly) staple of food in Rabat and Morocco more generally is the mint tea, which can be seen and smelled everywhere and is always accompanied with a considerable amount of sugar. Another really awesome part of Morocco has been the abundance of patterns everywhere. It’s definitely a treat to have your eye caught so many times just walking through the streets, or even walking down the stairs!

Avenue Mohammed V
Avenue Mohammed V in the Old Medina of Rabat, Morocco
Avenue Mohammed V in the Old Medina of Rabat, Morocco
Patterned stairs in the Center for Cross Cultural Learning, Rabat
Mosaic in the Old Medina
Mosaic in the Old Medina

On the topic of patterns and sights, the highlight of my time in Morocco thus far was undoubtedly my visit to Chefchaouen. Chefchaouen is glowingly referred to as the “blue city” and the “blue pearl of Morocco” in tourism literature; these descriptions make perfect sense once you get to the city itself, because all of the buildings are painted blue. After arriving Saturday night and having a delicious traditional Moroccan dinner, our group of six committed to waking up early on Sunday morning to try and catch the sunrise from an old temple overlooking the city. Led by a one-eyed dog we lovingly referred to as Buster, we made it past some much meaner dogs and over many slippery rocks to the temple itself, where we were greeted by a beautiful vista of fog and maybe 15 feet of visibility. After waiting for half an hour, the fog lifted for a blissful five minutes, during which we each snapped approximately 200 pictures each.

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Fog over Chefchaouen

After the fog returned, we collectively decided that we were really hungry and returned to our hostel for a delicious breakfast of fresh bread, tea and jam. At this point the fog finally decided to lift for good, which was slightly frustrating but still made for an excellent breakfast atmosphere. Chefchaouen has a wide variety of interesting shops and restaurants, and exploring all of them occupied a whole afternoon. There was a shop full of scented candles, soaps and other aromatic goods, and I also decided to purchase a pretty blue rug to remember the city by. Before leaving the city for good, we hiked partway up to the temple again to view the city in full sunlight, and also grabbed some delicious strawberry milkshakes.

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Painted houses outside of our hostel in Chefchaouen

 

Chefchaouen rooftops with the Rif Mountains in the background
Chefchaouen rooftops with the Rif Mountains in the background

I absolutely love almost everything about this country so far, from the fresh bread to my incredibly kind and welcoming host mother to the beach five minutes from our classroom. We’re headed to a village in the Atlas Mountains in the next few days and have our vacation after that, so stay tuned for more patterns and mountains and definitely bread.

Beach in Rabat, Morocco
Beach in Rabat, Morocco
Antigone Delton | Paris, France | Post 3

Antigone Delton | Paris, France | Post 3

As the halfway point of the semester approaches, so does the cold. I quickly realized that I did not bring enough scarves, that the leaves won’t be changing color, and that these gorgeous neoclassical facades provide about the same level of insulation as paper. This is excusable, seeing as I’m in Paris. What’s harder to come to terms with is nature’s relentless reminder that my study abroad clock is ticking. The farther we descend into the cold, the more I cringe when I think of the neglected “to do,” “to see” and “to eat” notes on my phone, waiting to be consulted.

Part of the reason for the lack of checked boxes on these lists may be my pre-Paris self’s underestimation of the “study” component of study abroad. I spent a good part of last week stressing about, researching and assembling a presentation for my Ancient Greek Art class, which was followed by the professor’s five-minute critique that left me at a level of academic vulnerability unfelt since the presidential fitness test (if that even counts). Adjusting to how Art History is taught has been difficult in itself. The French system seems to favor a heavily technical approach, where the height of the columns and the number of naves in a basilica may be discussed for slides on end, but we may go an entire lecture without mention of social, political, or even historical points of context.

Despite the intellectual turbulence provoked by my temporary uprooting from dear Vassar, I’ve managed to compartmentalize this unease and wholeheartedly embrace the “abroad” sans “study.” I’ve been lucky enough to venture to places outside of Paris, including the beautiful palace and gardens at Versailles and the famous cathedral at Chartres. A bit further afield, I recently took a trip to Brussels, a city I’ve been to several times to visit family. Beyond the chocolate, waffles and moules frites, the Belgian and European capital has increasingly grown on me for its unique character. A truly international city where you never hear the same language twice while walking down any given street, what Brussels lacks in “national” identity (or patrimoine, a scary word the French love but that I still don’t fully understand) it makes up for in unconventionality. The city’s most famous landmark, for example, is the Manneken-Pis, a two-foot tall 17th-century statue of a boy peeing into a fountain. Civic humor at its finest.

Chartres
Chartres
versailles
Versailles
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Orangerie

Back to Paris, and back to the cold. Around 1 A.M. on a Saturday night in October, my friends and I were shivering in front of the Hôtel de Ville on the right bank of the Seine. The occasion was la Nuit Blanche (the French expression for “all-nighter”), a city-wide celebration of art and nocturnal revelry where installation works, performances, parades, extended museum hours and a love story acted out along the river keep everyone up until sunrise. The piercing wind wove through the crowd, darting between circles of young Parisians (each properly enveloped by the ubiquitous scarf) and carrying with it trace scents of the crepes being churned out by nearby vendors. We were taking in what appeared to be a giant fake ice rink, elevated, illuminated and punctured with holes out of which rose vaguely pyramidal stacks of haphazardly arranged wooden chairs. As the wind blew, the structures spun in slow, majestic circles. The man next to me looked at the rink, then back at his friends. “This is our tax money,” he said.

My fellow art-lover was not wrong. I’m hard pressed to come up with another city where one would find a government-sponsored all-nighter, much less one dedicated to contemporary art. In my mind, albeit one of an interloping study abroad student and not a taxpayer, it’s this kind of collective valorization of culture and enjoyment that makes the Parisian lifestyle special. People here make an art out of living. You see it in how thoughtfully they dress, how finely they eat, how earnestly they page through their novels on the subway, how quickly they fill their calendars with exhibitions and ballades and nights at the movies. You hear it in the incessant use of the word profiter, a single verb that flies effortlessly out of the French mouth and finds a more cumbersome equivalent in English: to make the most of. You feel it in how quickly you become overwhelmed by the sheer number of possibilities of things to profite from on the weekend. My days in Paris look nothing like my days at Vassar, where I adhered to a careful formula of class, library, gym, library, deece, library, repeat. Putting this difference into words is not easy. A good friend, however, managed to articulate it for me one night over red wine, in a crowded bar, at a window fogged up by the breath of beautiful people. Time doesn’t pass here: it flows.

Claire Harper | New Delhi, India | Post 3

Claire Harper | New Delhi, India | Post 3

Hi, all!

Here some snapshots from the past couple of weeks!

The Taj­ Mahal:
Six of us went on a trip to Agra to do some sight seeing­,—the Taj included. We also visited a Mughal fort where Akbar lived. The architecture was beautiful, and there were little areas designed for each of his wives. He was very liberal in some ways­: he had a Christian wife, a Muslim wife, and there was one more religion that I can’t remember, but he allowed them to keep their beliefs. There was a mosque attached to the fort. I donated some rupees to help the poor and got a string to tie around part of a window in the mosque­. The string represented my wish. When your wish comes true you’re supposed to come back and untie your string.

The next morning we woke up at 5 a.m. to go to the Taj for sunrise—or that was the plan. We got to the place to get tickets and there was already a long line of blurry­-eyed white people waiting for their really expensive ($10) tickets. Once we got our tickets, we raced the sun down the street where we expected to walk right up to the Taj. Yet again, there was a long line of tourists already there. The women had to stand in a separate line from the men; our line was much hotter as we were sheltered under a tent that kept all the body heat in. As per usual, the men’s line went way faster than ours. We finally got through security and made our way to our destination—the sun already up in the sky. That is when the selfies began. I wasn’t sure if anyone around me was actually looking at the Taj itself. People were fighting for the best angle, the best bench, the best point on the path to get that prized shot of them in front of the Taj­ Mahal. There were some embarrassing blond girls dressed in tacky saris who clearly considered this their own personal photo shoot. This is not to say that I was outside of these activities—Mom did tell me many times that I had to get a photo of myself.

Up close, the marble was beautifully carved and painted with intricate designs. What made the experience most meaningful to me was thinking about how many feet have walked on this marble, how many centuries and centuries this building has watched people from all over the world wander in and out its walls. The tourist frenzy served as a funny juxtaposition to this history. How is modernity changing the way we interact with such an ancient sight? Is our picture taking any less reverent than how people saw the sight before? Is this interaction a representation of our society’s increasing obsession with individuality, or has this urge to claim a famous place as one’s own always been there?

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Finding Flexibility in Yoga:
The first yoga class I went to was like nothing I’ve ever done. It was called Power Yoga. A majority of the students were Indian women;­ about half were middle aged, and half were my age. Some women wore kurtas, and some wore more western clothing. The yoga instructor gave very brief instructions in Hindi between counting to 10 for a sequence of aerobic exercises. Then we abruptly switched to breathing exercises, then to some laughing yoga and a part where we just held our arms out and yelled at the ceiling, which was very cathartic. At the end we chanted some mantras, bits of which I recognized from yoga classes at home.

All in all, it was an odd experience­ containing some very westernized notions of yoga and some very traditional aspects like breath and laughter. I miss having music during class, and I miss the concern for the body­ advice to not lock knees or be careful of your back. I am trying to be flexible, though. I’m sure I still have many different kinds of yoga classes to experience.

A Family Gathering:
On Saturdays my homestay family has lunch across the hall in the grandmother’s apartment. Different family members wander into the kitchen at their leisure; it is an all-afternoon event. The grandmother can’t speak any English, but our sister translates when she wants to communicate to Floor and I. The room is filled with women­—aunts and cousins, our mother’s sisters-­in­-law. Our mother stands in the kitchen frying chipati (bread) while I help one of the aunts role out the dough on a little wooden cutting board. We sit cross-legged on the floor. She asks me, prompted by Floor’s discussion of her research project on women and Hinduism, what I think of God. I don’t know what to say for a second,­ unsure of what I think of God or how I can say it in simple English. I tell her that I think of God as nature; we are all made of the same stuff; we are all united with each other and responsible for each other.

After we help with the cooking, we are served various dishes that the family members have made. Our fresh and greasy bread, some cauliflower and potatoes, a sweet rice and milk dish, and these orange fried sweets that taste like really sweet donuts. Every time our plate is empty, we are encouraged to take more food. After eating our fill, we sit in the other room with our sister and one of the younger cousins. This room is like an enclosed porch. The sun filters in through the screen that separates the balcony from the outside air. We watch the rickshaws, motorcycles and cars drive every which way on the road—honking every second. The women on the roof of the building across are carrying heavy loads of dirt on their heads­—it looks like hot work in this heat.

Fernando Braga | Beijing, China | Post 1

Fernando Braga | Beijing, China | Post 1

I consider myself fortunate. This semester, the fall of my senior year, is my second semester abroad experience since being at Vassar. The first was sophomore summer. Both then and now, I enrolled in Hamilton College’s ACC (Associated Colleges in China) program in Beijing because I wanted to be in a big city in mainland China doing an intensive Mandarin language pledge program. More than halfway into the fall semester, I feel happy about my choice and hoped to share my experience as a way of helping other Vassar students evaluating ACC.

First off, my positives. This semester, 13 native Chinese teachers with Master’s degrees and three to eight years of experience instruct 23 students. That’s less than a one point five to one student-teacher ratio. The biggest class at ACC is five people, then later in the day, classes get smaller until the final daily one-to-one instruction for all students.

The teachers make this program what it is. They are accessible and regularly communicate through wechat (a Facebook-like app). They hold office hours between 7-9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. Two house-fellow-like residential advisors, one a classroom teacher and another an American recent college graduate, assist in any life activities like visa renewals, getting the best deal on running shoes, or finding nightlife activities. And, as if that wasn’t enough, after every weekly Friday morning exam, our classroom teachers take us out to lunch.

Other cultural activities include after school and weekend extracurricular events like ping pong and visits to the Great Wall, respectively. Students are also partnered with classmates to visit Chinese host families on the weekends. As I write this, I am on a sleep-over train to the city of Xi’an where myself, classmates and teachers will spend four days touring and sightseeing as part of ACC’s mid-semester break.

Having researched other similar programs on the web and by speaking with alums, I have learned that ACC is one of the best academically intense programs, comparable in many ways to UPI, Harvard in China, and Princeton in Beijing. Of course, any program has its negatives and particularities that are not for everybody.

I consider studying in the mainland a short-term sacrifice of freedom-of-speech for long-term gain of culture and language learning. To be clear, you can basically speak freely in speech, and a few Chinese people will even speak openly with foreigners that they don’t know. But in the mainland, most avoid sensitive political topics with strangers, and the classroom texts and written assignments are censored to avoid criticizing the horrors of the Communist Party or Mao. The pollution alone deserves its own article and, as I plan on doing another academic year of study in Mandarin after graduation, I am considering not coming back to the mainland because of it.

The workload is another challenge. Having done ACC twice, I feel like a language pledge is both academically rewarding but overwhelming at times. Additionally, after four hours of class on non-test days, the weeks and weeks of four to six hours of homework five nights a week can be taxing. I take full advantage of being allowed to speak English in my room to friends and family in the U.S. daily in large part to cope with the stress of homework, acclimating to being abroad and not being able to fluently express my feelings.

As you can tell, I have strong positive feelings about the program, and I encourage others to check it out. But it is not for everyone. I wanted a challenge, and I got it in ways that I am happy to have overcome. I now feel truly prepared to not only to speak Mandarin at a higher level but also to work and live abroad should my career take me there.

Caleb Zachary | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Post 3

Caleb Zachary | Amsterdam, The Netherlands | Post 3

Well, I’ve just finished my first batch of midterms here at UvA. After summer it’s always hard to get back into an academic mindset, and though it’s been almost two months now, I feel as if I’ve only just gotten back to it. I’ve been noticing that when I’m not surrounded by the trappings of college all the time, it’s a lot easier to forget about how important my schoolwork should be. When the library isn’t a four-and-a-half minute, sweat-panted walk from my room, it can be a lot more difficult to sit down to study. When my classes are made up of a couple dozen international students spread across the city, it can be hard to find people nearby to do test prep with. And when the Deece isn’t readily available for plundering and complaining about, I have much less motivation to prepare healthy meals for myself.

Besides that, I find it freeing to be living in an apartment rather than a dorm; to be able to bike to class and go out for drinks afterward; and to grab a train ticket for a weekend if I feel like seeing something besides this beautiful city.

The past weekend I flew from Amsterdam to Bristol, England to see my girlfriend Nina, who is studying at the University of Bristol. Bristol has a quaint look similar to Amsterdam—old architecture and low-lying houses coupled with an abundance of street art everywhere you go.

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Banksy is from Bristol, and the whole town is covered in a variety of tags, from paint-markered names to elaborate, colourful political punditry. On Saturday we took advantage of the uncharacteristically warm weather and walked from her dorm into Stokes Croft, a neighborhood that used to be an industrial area before being bombed flat in WWII, after which it came to be known for the art and music scene in Bristol.

Banksy’s Mild Mild West was adorned on the corner of a building across from where we had lunch.

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Though Amsterdam and Bristol are decidedly different cities, Nina and I agreed that there was something liberating about being away from Vassar. Studying in an urban center without being coached through the entire enterprise can be incredibly stressful, but also has given me the satisfaction of knowing that I can do it. Even in August, preparing for Amsterdam without really knowing what I was getting into, I was asking myself what I hoped to get out of my study abroad experience. I’d been asked the same question when I applied for abroad, but I hadn’t known what to expect, and filled in the standard, cliché answers provided by study abroad propaganda.

Long before August, in the spring of 2013, a Vassar admissions rep came to my high school to pitch us the school. I had signed up for the presentation because of the gorgeous buildings (I think it was the library and Skinner) on the admissions poster. The rep told us that in senior year, students live in the THs or TAs, which she called ‘life on training wheels.’ The idea, she said, was for students to get a feeling for real-life responsibilities before being kicked out into the cold, unforgiving wasteland that would be post-college life.

Now, sitting on the terrace in Funenpark and looking out over the neighbourhood, I feel as if study abroad has really beaten that rep to the punch. Going back to Vassar and living on campus next year will feel stifling at best. I’m excited to come back to Poughkeepsie, don’t get me wrong, but before this year I was incredibly enamoured of Vassar’s campus and the ease with which everything is provided for us on a daily basis. It awes me the amount of work the staff at Vassar put in so that we as students can live as unbothered as we do, and even living in the THs won’t grant that same level of independence as I’ve been enjoying here.

Obviously this is not the experience of every person to ever go abroad, but I’ve found that my study abroad has been much more practical than I imagined it would be, and, most importantly, has given me perspective on how much should allow myself to enjoy living on a residential campus.

Katie Hoots | Rome, Italy | Post 2

Katie Hoots | Rome, Italy | Post 2

It had been a long day of traveling, and I was honestly desperate for a moment of inspiration. Our group had just travelled for hours from Rome to Paestum headed towards Sicily, preceded by a tough week for me with a Latin test, an Ancient City (ancient art, culture, architecture and archaeology) quiz and an art history presentation. It’s like the week before October break at Vassar when the professors feel the need to cram in obligatory midterms. On top of that, it was the week that marked two months of me being abroad—major feels.
The Roman Forum
The Roman Forum
Trastevere, the nearby neighborhood where I take walks, go out on weekends, and get food and coffee
Trastevere, the nearby neighborhood where Katie takes walks, goes out on weekends and gets food and coffee
View over Tiber from Castel San Angelo / Hadrian’s Mausoleo
View over Tiber from Castel San Angelo / Hadrian’s Mausoleo
Dressed up for my art history presentation on Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli
Dressed up for an art history presentation on Michelangelo’s Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli
Hanging out in the ancient amphitheater of Alba Fucens
Hanging out in the ancient amphitheater of Alba Fucens
By then it was time for the next stop in our journey—Paestum. Originally Poseidanio but changed after Roman conquest, Paestum was founded as a colony of Magna Graecia in the 6th century BCE. We, classicists, fawn over the remains of three massive Greek temples that were built there in 550 BCE, 500 BCE and 450 BCE to Hera and Athena—absolutely gorgeous, towering structures with lush, scenic backdrops and the shoreline nearby. It should’ve been a moment of inspiration—and it was, in many ways. The sheer sizes of the Doric temples coupled with the wealth and architectural precision needed to construct them were spectacular.
But ancient archaeology takes an emotional toll. It wouldn’t do the temples justice to not look at them in the fullness of their historical context—a history filled with both beauty and oppression. The temples are a lasting emblem of the intertwining triumphs, conquests and wars of the Greeks, the Italic Lucanians and the Romans—histories ranging from the awesome to the terrible.
Internalizing the gravity of those histories is hard, and being with those temples after an already emotional week felt more like a weight than a transcendence. It reminded me of another site we had been to, which had carried similar gravity in my heart. A few weeks ago, my group went to the Museo Della Navi di Nemi in Praeneste, which once held the ships of Nemi. Dated to the first century CE, the two ships were found in the late 1920s and early 1930s—supposedly the party boats of the emperor Caligula. They were so large that one had an entire Roman bath complex onboard.
Praeneste view from the Temple of Fortuna
Praeneste view from the Temple of Fortuna
At some point, the massive ships sank in the nearby lake Nemi, close to the sanctuary of Diana in Praeneste. They wouldn’t be discovered for almost 2,000 years, at which time the Italian government would spend a huge amount of money to drain the lake and recover them. In a way, the Nemi ships became a cultural symbol for Italy – still a relatively new nation at the time. An entire museum was built with a specific architectural design for housing the ships. In 1944, Nazi forces occupied Praeneste and a precious symbol of Italy’s ancient past—the Museo Della Navi di Nemi. When the Italians came back after the Nazis left, the ancient ships had been burnt to ashes.
Walking down a hill over the lake where there is a Sanctuary to the Goddess Diana and Nero’s Nemi ships were found
Walking down a hill over the lake where there is a Sanctuary to the Goddess Diana and Nero’s Nemi ships were found
My professor called it the saddest museum in all of Italy. Now filled with a few Nemi ship remains and other trinkets from antiquity, the place feels heartbroken and empty. Our group was floored. It was one of those moments where you could feel the pain in the silence. Walking around, I could see my classmates try to put on brave faces even though I knew they deeply felt the accost to Italian and Roman culture and history. Amongst the deep sense of connection to the past one feels upon visiting ancient sites, there is yet another sense of loss at moments like these.
Flash forward, there I was—thinking of the lost Nemi ships as I stood in the gorgeous, towering temple of Hera, waiting for that inspiration which should have been overwhelming.
Finally, we were given break time, during which we all rushed to the Napoli coast. My classmates and I were so excited to be in the Mediterranean—immediately we were racing and throwing balls and jumping in the waves. In a rush of lukewarm October Napoli water, surrounded by my classics family, the inspiration came flooding in. I found myself just standing there looking out into the sunset (truly a Kodak moment) and feeling rich with experiences. I looked onto the surrounding shores and thought of the temples, the Nemi ships, the italic lucanians, the Greeks and the Romans.
My friend, Love, who had also found himself frozen in the setting sun, looked at me and said, “It’s triumphal, dude,” and I couldn’t agree more. Contrary to the feelings of loss I had felt for the ancient peoples and their decaying history, I then felt inspiration—and triumph. It was the kind if triumph that humans have craved and killed for, the kind I felt while reminiscing in the memories of material beauty and simultaneously surrounded by natural landscapes and a community of people. But I realized that it couldn’t have existed without my empathetic feelings of loss.
You have to appreciate people and places and pasts for the entirety of what they are—not some romanticized, convoluted version. The truth is, we can learn anything or take anything from the pretty parts of the past, but the the darker parts can be the most informative and even the most beautiful. It’s even more amazing to be able to experience it all within the context of this community—certainly feeling blessed.
John Ammondson | Hoi An, Vietnam | Post 3

John Ammondson | Hoi An, Vietnam | Post 3

Many people on my program have been saying that they can’t believe our time in Vietnam is almost over and that we’re headed to Morocco in less than a week. Although time does fly when you’re having fun, my Vietnam experience has been so jam-packed with different activities and places that I also sometimes feel like a whole semester has passed already! One of the most important parts of my time in Hoi An has been my homestay. I had just moved in with one other student from my program at the end of my last blog post. The homestay has definitely been a change for me; I’ve never lived in someone else’s house for more than a few days at a time before, and I’ve always known some member(s) of the family I was with. There’s also the language barrier to contend with, since my host father and mother don’t speak much English. However, their extended family all lives in the area and are always in and around the house to translate/talk to, and we felt totally welcomed by everyone. Also, the home-cooked Vietnamese food every morning and night has been pretty awesome, and it’s been cool to eat in a more communal style.

The best part of Hoi An has for sure been biking. Since our homestays are spread across the town, pretty far away from our classroom and the old quarter, we all have bikes to make getting around easier. I wrote earlier about the craziness of traffic in Vietnam, what with the huge number of motorbikes and disregard of traffic laws, but it’s another thing entirely to be thrown into the mix yourself. Although Hoi An is smaller and slightly slower-paced than Hanoi, it’s still pretty hectic, and we have all had to become adept at biking in a busy urban environment. That being said, the independence that comes with having a bike has been totally worth it. My favorite bike-accessible spot in Hoi An has definitely been the rice paddies; there’s a path that weaves right through the paddies and shrimp farms, with palm trees on either side for most of the way. There are water buffalo everywhere, and it’s just a pretty beautiful and peaceful scene in general. I don’t know what it is with Vietnam in particular, but there have been some pretty spectacular clouds and skies the whole time we’ve been here.

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Sunset over rice paddy fields

The first week of our stay in Hoi An was fairly uneventful overall. A lot of our time was spent exploring the historic Old Quarter of the city, which contains a ton of well-preserved buildings from the 17th century, as well as a staggering number of tailors and clothes shops. The local market had a variety of restaurants serving fresh, delicious Vietnamese food for low prices, so I had a lot of meals there, as well as a lot of croissants at a smoothie place called Cocobox. We had class in a government building near the center of Hoi An, at the offices of an agency assigned to protect the marine area around the Cham Islands, which are right off the coast. Although there wasn’t much danger with this specific agency, we were still reminded to be conscious of what we were talking about and avoid certain topics, which is a big cognitive switch coming from America. A lot of our guest lecturers talked about hydropower in Vietnam, leading up to our visit to a hydropower dam in the mountains called A Vuong 1. On Wednesday morning of our first week there (September 28), our whole group packed into four vans and drove three hours to the hydropower dam through some of the most gorgeous mountain scenery I have ever seen. After a presentation on the history of the plant, we put our hard hats on and took a tour of the facility, which was certainly interesting.

A pipe providing water for the hydropower plant.
A pipe providing water for the hydropower plant

That afternoon, we visited a resettled indigenous community that had been displaced by the same hydropower plant. The dam that was built to store water and regulate flow for the plant flooded a considerable amount of land to create a reservoir, including the land previously inhabited by the villagers. It was a very eye-opening experience to spend time with the people there; their lives and livelihoods had been turned upside down by the relocation, and the government still didn’t give them enough support in terms of food supplies and land allocations. After sharing some candy with the kids from the village, we concluded our visit and drove to our hotel in Hue, another city on the central coast. One thing to note from the drive to Hue was our rest stop. I’ve been searching for Ritz Bits (tiny cheese crackers) since the airport in San Francisco, but haven’t been able to find any in Vietnam. This rest stop had the Vietnamese equivalent, which was pretty incredible, as well as calming lake views.

Lake by the rest stop
Lake by the rest stop

Staying in a hotel was definitely a nice change of locale, especially considering the AC, queen beds and hotel spa. The personal highlight of my hotel stay was definitely continental breakfast, which included omelettes, fresh bread and fruit, great coffee, and bananas wrapped in crepes and drizzled with chocolate. I love breakfast and have been missing some of the classic American staples, so this was a very happy occurrence. On Thursday morning, we took a tour of Hue, including a visit to the tomb of an ancient emperor and a walking tour of the imperial palace. Our tour guide was super friendly and very knowledgeable, and both the tomb and palace were beautifully decorated and well-preserved.

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The tomb of Emperor Tu Duc of the Nguyen Dysnasty

Thursday afternoon and evening were occupied by a visit to a fishing village in a lagoon north of the city. We took a motorboat ride out on the lagoon and saw the local fishing techniques, and also got the chance to go clamming in shallow water. I wasn’t particularly adept at picking the clams up with my feet, but I was able to cheat the system due to having super long arms. I sat on the roof of the boat on the ride back and enjoyed yet another gorgeous sunset, then had dinner with the fishing families (with the meal including some of the clams we had caught). After one last dip in the hotel hot tub and one more glorious breakfast, we piled into a bus Saturday morning to get back to Hoi An. The next day I biked to the beach with some friends and enjoyed some waves with perfect ocean temperature while trying to avoid sunburn. Later in the week, our whole group took a trip out to the aforementioned Cham Islands; after a rapid and bumpy ride by speedboat, we walked around the island and took in the views before heading to the beach. A few of us rented snorkeling gear to explore the shallow reefs right off the beach and saw a ton of coral, crazy patterned fish and some sea stars. We were also caught right in the middle of a school of small flying fish, which was definitely an unforgettable experience.

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Public beach on Cham Islands

I’ll be sad to leave my homestay in Hoi An, but I’m also very, very excited to head to Morocco in a few days. Though it will be tough in some ways to adapt to another country and culture, I’m really looking forward to cooler and drier temperatures, as well as new cities and the desert! Check back soon and I’ll let you know if I survived yet another time zone change.