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Month: March 2017

Jackson Ingram | Barcelona, Spain | Post 2

Jackson Ingram | Barcelona, Spain | Post 2

At the end of our orientation in Granada, I found myself in another airport, desperately wanting to miss another flight. Not wanting to get on planes has kind of become my thing lately.

At that point, I had decided that Spain might end up being okay. I mean, really, Grenada was a sweet gig. All I had to do was sit through three hours of exceptionally boring classes each morning and then Nicolás (our dauntless director) would herd us through cobblestone streets the rest of the day, buying us food and wine and smiling politely as I continuously mixed up “ser” and “estar.” Why did we have to leave? Wouldn’t it be better to just live in a hotel the rest of the semester in the center of a tourist trap?

Nothing terrified me more than the prospect of meeting my host mother, whose name and address came to me on a print-out the day before our departure. Mari Carmen. Age 69. No pets. Well geez, no pets? What was even the point of studying abroad?

Only by burying my nose in Carrie Fisher’s autobiographical Wishful Drinking (5/5 stars, by the way) could I get through our hour-long flight. We hit a wave of turbulence during the last 20 minutes, and all I could think was, “Who will tell this Mari Carmen that we all died and that she should start looking for new renters?” We did not die, however, a dashed expectation that was quickly becoming a trend for my semester.

“Here lies Squidward’s hopes and dreams.”

I landed. I got in a cab. I tried to convince the cabbie to drive me back to Missouri, but he neither spoke English nor drove a seaworthy taxi. And despite my best attempt to melt into the floorboards, I eventually had to get out and meet this woman to whom I was to be bound for almost five months.

Mari Carmen and I were paired solely by the virtue of her vegetarianism, which would save me from the constant danger of intestinal failure via Spain’s pork obsession. She goes to the gym every day, used to own a cafetería and could probably bench press me. We kind of got off onto the wrong foot. The wrong several feet actually. She’s been doing this host-family thing for over 20 years. Her last Vassar student stayed for two semesters and allegedly spoke better Spanish than she did. I would have assured her that there was no danger in that with me, but suddenly I had forgotten every Spanish word I had learned over the past two and a half years.

We had many misunderstandings. I tended to just say “sí” to everything, whether I knew what the heck was going on or not, as this was one word I felt I had mastered. This is a mistake, [email protected] If you do not understand something, please tell your host family. You may worry about irritating your hosts or embarrassing yourself (both of which will happen anyway), but trust me, it’s way more frustrating when you’ve broken a rule you don’t understand and suddenly you’re wading through a stream of rapid-fire Spanish commands, not sure how to help your host mom clean up the vase of water she just dropped because every time you approach with a towel she starts screaming about broken glass and wet floors.

Interior design by Mari Carmen

Now that I’ve been here for over a month, Mari Carmen and I are much more comfortable with one another, and while we don’t hang out much, I’ve stopped hiding from her in my room. Besides our chats in the kitchen (which she refers to as her “oficina”) we have bonded over a gameshow called Pasapalabra. It’s like Spanish Wheel of Fortune but with more rules, more celebrity guests and more money. We’re obsessed with it. We watch it during dinner each night and while I seldom understand the announcer’s questions, I’ve still learned a lot from Mari Carmen’s commentary.

For example, she tells me that if a man has his left ear pierced, that’s the “the gay ear.” My seventh-grade sources claim it’s the right one, but I’m going to have to defer to Mari Carmen on this one since she has an extensive knowledge of the genders, sexualities and dating histories of each celebrity guest on the show. She even used to serve breakfast to Javier Cámara, star of the over-advertised hit comedy Es por tu bien. If you’ve watched any Spanish TV in the past six months, you’ve probably seen an ad for it. The movie looks terrible, but it’s my new claim to fame.

Mari Carmen didn’t make this, but it’s a good representation of Spanish portion sizes.

The host family experience, while no doubt the most direct route for Spanish immersion, varies wildly in the success of its execution. One of my friends hit it off so well with her host mother, that she’s already made plans to visit Madrid every year for like, the rest of their lives. Others have had less positive experiences. One guy in my program is in an endless domestic struggle to use the fridge and other basic amenities. Another one is living with a mosquito infestation. Despite my ups and downs this first month, it obviously could be worse, and for most students, it’s just a matter of time and adjustment to living with strangers who have their own customs and expectations. (Rules and customs that, I don’t know, maybe could have been explained a little more slowly using a more basic Spanish vocabulary. Just a thought!)

If you’re really lucky, maybe you’ll make a life-long, elderly Spanish friend. If not…well, you can kill plenty of time en la Universidad, the sordid details of which I’ll save for my next post. Hasta luego, [email protected]

Jason Goldman | Berlin, Germany | Post 1

Jason Goldman | Berlin, Germany | Post 1

As I sit reflecting on my first month in Berlin, I can hardly fathom how fast the time has flown by. I know it’s cliché (what about having a travel blog isn’t cliché), but time really could not be moving faster right now. Living in a huge, bustling city like Berlin is such a dramatic and welcome change from life at Vassar, and I’m so grateful that I’m able to have this experience.

I suppose I can begin at the beginning. Disclosure: writing exclusively in German has probably completely screwed up my English prose, so please excuse the choppiness of this post. I arrived my first day to our hotel, where we were staying for only a few days before moving in with our host families. I had two hours to kill before I could check in, so I went for a walk around the area. To be honest it looked a lot like Beverly Hills, with designer stores and fancy glass shopping centers. Right in the middle of all of this consumerism was the ruined tower of the Gedächtniskirche, a structure which was left in its post-WWII state a reminder of the damage incurred during the war.

Seeing the church was my “oh right this is Europe” moment. Later in the day I met my roommate, and now one of my best friends on the program, Alessandro from Oberlin. He is also a vegan who likes classical music, so you could say it was fate that brought us together.

After some pretty mundane and casual orientation days, we were introduced to our host families. I was unbelievably nervous; I knew nothing about the family I was going to be living with for six months, and I hadn’t spoken a word of German during the entirety of break. Suddenly in walks a young man with an older couple, and my program coordinator, Claudia, introduces all of us. I learned that I was going to live alone with the younger man, the son of the other two, named Niklas, in his apartment in Kreuzberg. Not exactly my idea of what a host family situation entailed, but after conversing a bit in my crappy German, I learned that we had a lot in common. He also plays the piano and has his own piano in his apartment, which was a welcome surprise for me! My apartment turns out to be absolutely ideal. I have a great location, right in the “hip” area of the city, and my own balcony off my room.

Classes started the following Monday, and wow is it rough getting accustomed to commuting to school. With the subway (U-Bahn) it takes 45 minutes, and class starts at 9 am. We have language every day for three hours, plus a culture course on Mondays and Wednesdays. Additionally, my program offers a class on contemporary art, in which we go to a different museum each week and meet to discuss the art (in German) with the collector/docent. Even though I only understand about half of what is said, the exhibits are an amazing and stimulating experience to go to each week.

Warhol’s Mao at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum

I quickly learn that for my other friends studying abroad, Berlin is a must-travel-to city. My friend studying in Copenhagen spontaneously booked a bus to Berlin one week, and I offered to have her stay over in my apartment. The next weekend my friend studying in Spain comes to stay with me, and this past weekend, my friend Gabby from Vassar who’s studying in Bologna came through. With all of these visits, I manage to see different things in the city. Together with my out-of-town friends, I’ve visited the East Side Gallery, a strip of the Berlin Wall that today features murals by various artists, the Jewish Museum, the Berlin Cathedral, the Holocaust Memorial and various other historical buildings and memorials.           

A snap with one of the more well-known panels of the East Side Gallery (yes I’m holding a beer—public drinking is legal here #litt)


Other highlights of my first month: through some interesting channels, I ended up meeting a group of other German students. Together with them and some of my other friends on the program, we played a German drinking game involving throwing a shoe at a beer bottle. If the bottle is knocked over, the opposing team has to drink as fast as possible in order to finish their alcohol before your team reclaims their shoe. I also have had dinner a few times with my host brother (? still not sure what to call him)’s family, and by the second time I was able to actually converse with them! Yay progress! My program also hooks us up with tickets to cultural events, so we’ve been to the opera and the symphony on many occasions. It could honestly not be more ideal for me.

Aaaand I think that about sums it up! I’m going to London this weekendmy first time traveling since being here, and I’m excited to get a glimpse into another European city. Tschau! (German spelling of “ciao”).

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 2

Rachel Ludwig | Paris, France | Post 2

Although I’ve never read The Picture of Dorian Gray all the way through (I’m a sham of an English major) I’ve recently been giving some thought a particular Oscar Wilde quote. I saw it few weeks back while sitting on le ligne 6, heading to Reid Hall for class. From what I could make out from behind the smudged Plexiglas and bobbing Parisian heads, it was something to do with the difference between existing and living. The full thing reads, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I’m not sure if he realizes it, but Mr. Wilde sort of threw me with that one.

For about a week, which happened to be my February vacation, Oscar Wilde, sporting his fur collared overcoat and impossibly fluffy hair, followed me around Paris. On the metro, getting a sandwich, even buying tissues, there he was, hanging out, casually poking me like, “hey, so just wondering when the whole living thing was going to happen? Like timeline-wise where are we?” And while in some ways Mr. Wilde is right, I think I’d like to complicate his theory. If I could sharpie in something on that little metro ad, a task for which I definitely do not have the audacity, I would add a little note about the merits of allowing oneself the time to exist.

In a lot of ways, as the semester begins to pass increasingly quickly, it feels sacrilegious to have a “lazy” day in Paris. However, I think I’ve done some great existing this past month.

Sometimes, existing means just spending the day at home and doing laundry. I remember calling my parents, extremely satisfied with myself and telling them “I had such a productive day, I did the laundry and ran the dishwasher in French.” Understandably they where kind of like, “what the hell,” because pushing a few buttons with French words isn’t actually that hard. BUT, as I explained to them, that strange feeling of pride came from the fact that I was making a home for myself in Paris. Falling into a routine here has been immensely satisfying. Saturdays, I’ve been honing the perfect morning combination of visiting the Passy market, picking out a cheese from the fromagerie, grabbing a warm chocolate chip brioche from Aux Merveilleux de Fred, and heading home to relax and enjoy the afternoon. I’ve even tentatively opened my balcony doors a few times in order to enjoy my spoils with a tolerably frosty breeze.

Cheese from the local fromagerie

The epitome of my “existing” over the last few weeks actually happened the other day, as I was getting a bento box for lunch at a Japanese restaurant a few blocks away from my house. When I came up to the register to pay, expecting the usual “Bonjour,” followed by “dix euros s’il vous plaît,” the cashier said something rapidly in French, while smiling—which in French customer service is something of a rarity. What I think he said, after repeating it a second time, was possibly along the lines of “I think I recognize you from such and such place, do you work at such and such store?” Of course I handled this moment with the greatest dignity, turning bright red, saying “non” and sprinting out of Hana Bento. To be clear, this was probably the most flattering moment of my Parisian existence thus far, because for a moment, an actual Parisian confused me for one of his own.

Now, to appease Oscar Wilde, I’ve also done a decent amount of living this February. This week alone included two outings to the theatre, a meal of snails and pig’s feet at Bouillon Chartier, and a hilarious evening of jazz and sangria. To elaborate on the jazz, one of the tutors at Reid Hall invited us to come see her husband’s band, Cobra Fantastique, preform at a club near Bastille. Between a failed “la bisse” (the French tradition of greeting people with strange, irrational cheek kisses) and the jazz/funk combination, it was a singularly wonderful, very French evening.


Escargot at Chartier

Another highlight of this month was a visit to the Salon d’Agriculture, the national exhibition for produce, animals, cuisine and farming technology. Expecting something akin to the Ohio State Fair, I was on the fence about getting up early and spending my morning with a few French cows. However, hands down, the Salon d’Agriculture was probably one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in Paris thus far. The event occupies the space of eight arena sized buildings dedicated to livestock, French cuisine and wine, rabbits and children, horses, dogs, international cuisine, technology and vegetables/fruits. I arrived planning to spend maybe an hour and ended up staying for six and skipping my literature class at Sorbonne Nouvelle (thanks Oscar Wilde). It was a blissful day full of free goat cheese samples, meeting famous, award-winning cows, and aggressively attempting to make the horses at the petting zoo acknowledge me.

Moi and cow at the Salon d’Agriculture


Salon d’Agriculture

Now, I’m not sure what category this falls into (Existing or Living) but I’ve also begun an internship at Lycée EIB Étoile, a bilingual French/English high school. On Thursday mornings, I work with two English creative writing classes at the “Seconde” level, which essentially corresponds to freshman year of high school. As an intern, I help the professor during “writing workshops” and work one on one with students to review their pieces for the week. Currently, the students are working on opinion papers, something completely foreign and difficult for French students. In the French writing system, students are taught to write extremely formulaically, with phrases like “I will present my argument in three parts,” and then they actually go on to explicitly list the three parts. So, creative writing, especially when it comes to presenting their personal opinions, is a challenge.

However, I was completely blown away by how thoughtful and strangely progressive their opinion paper topics—of their own choosing—were. As the students went around the room sharing their topics with the class, I was shocked by how many students wanted to tackle really serious topics, from abortion rights to equal pay to eating disorders. Of course, this is coming from the person who wrote a six-page opinion piece sophomore year of high school about cilantro (it’s the worst). What was most interesting to me was that two of those topics—abortion rights for women in the US and equal pay in the workplace—were presented by male students. It was actually kind of surreal sitting down with a 15 year old French boy and discussing current issues about the defunding of Planned Parenthood and refreshing to see how appalled he was by the state of women’s healthcare in the US.

Anyway, coming up this month, I’m looking forward to a day trip to Rouen, several papers/projects and a weeklong visit from my favorite Vassar Art History major! À la prochaine!

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 4

Kohei Joshi | Oxford, England | Post 4

Reminiscing About the Phases of My Life and Some Lessons I’ve Learned

Plane rides have become the measurement of my life, something like the markings of each chapter. Back when I was much younger, I used to look forward in time whenever I arrived at an airport. After all, I only ever went to one for something like a family vacation, and who wouldn’t look forward to something like that, right? When you’re five, there’s really not much to reminisce about anyways. In a somewhat reluctant recognition, however, nowadays, the sight of planes takes me back in time through memories of my friends, troubles and legacy as passengers. Here, I simply reminisce about the different phases of my life and what I got out of each episode.

I’m pretty sure the first time I rode an airplane was when I was four, moving from Tokyo to California for my father’s work. We were supposed to stay for two years, but it wasn’t until nine years later that I moved back to Japan. Having spent the good majority of my childhood in California attending a public high school, I was very much a typical Californian kid. I really didn’t care much about school. In fact, I remember we had these “bad behavior slips” that the teacher sent out to our parents every week, and I broke the record for the most number of slips in the first week with a number that even kids on Santa’s blacklist would gawk at—fourteen. The moment the teacher said, “Kohei, you have fourteen this week,” my friend (whom I think had four) kindly made sure I heard correctly by shouting, “FOURTEEN?!” Ever since I was young, I loved the outdoors, and I would spend time with my neighbors almost every day playing basketball, attempting to catch rabbits (and succeeding once), going to the pool, or playing the “Lava Game” on the playgrounds. In this era, I simply learned the value of Fridays and how to have fun.

When I was thirteen, I moved back to Kobe in what I thought would be the worst day of my life. Within three weeks of moving back, I joined a Japanese soccer team, as I have been playing since the age of four. There, I encountered firsthand the strict culture of sports in Japan. During the summer of my first year in Japan, I probably had less than a week off total. The following summer was a particularly difficult one for me, becoming somewhat of a turning point in my life. It was a hot summer day, around 39°C/100°F, and we had three consecutive matches scheduled. I had to play in all of them (I won’t go into the details, but I didn’t really have a choice). I somehow managed to get through the games—albeit, just barely standing—but on my way home, I fell in the middle of the street from dehydration. I was carried to the hospital in an ambulance three hours away from home. I remember staring at the ceiling and wondering what I was doing with my life. Then, the realization suddenly hit me that my days of fun and games were over, and I had to work harder if I wanted to succeed in life. Otherwise, I would end up weak and wounded in the hospital like I did this time. I developed an appreciation for the Hobbesian view of the world, the “survival of the fittest” model.

Leaving for a travel trip to meet the team on an island in Japan

I flew to America for college when I turned 18 with a completely new mindset. My experiences playing football in Japan taught me discipline, time management, self-motivation and the value of simply working hard. I was what you would call an ambitious teen, itching to push himself to the limits and expand his boundaries. My second year in college, I was on the Varsity football team spending three hours a day six times a week playing soccer, had a student government role as Dorm President, and also started up a new organization dedicated to providing substance-free and interactive programming. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to handle everything, but I promised myself before college that I was going to push myself. My time in college was the first time in my life that I set out on a journey with an almost insatiable thirst for growth. For a while, nothing went well for me. I was not a starter for soccer, I was criticized as House President, no one came to the events of my organization, and I was spending most days alone in my room. In hindsight, I now see why many people look back at their adversity in a positive light, attributing the dark days to what made them who they are today. I realized the simplest lesson of all—over time, perseverance and diligence pays off in character at the very least.

First successful event our organization put on

My plane ride back to Japan from New York the summer of 2016 was the first time I remember thinking more about the past than the future. I’m sitting on the chairs at the gates, staring out the window and thinking about how blessed I am to have had met such incredible people on my journey. I think about how much I have changed since going to college; I used to dislike people that I disagreed with, but I realized that the world cannot actually move forward without people who are unwavering in their beliefs. When two people are arguing for long enough, both sides develop followers and spur greater debates and discussions. In the midst of this, people from both sides create enemies, indeed, but also new friends. A lack of discussion leaves people in the dark, and some may say that being disliked is still better than being shunned. It strikes me that most of my life, I have tried pleasing people and avoiding confrontations; the Japanese side in me chooses harmony and peace over creative destruction. This is terrible in the business world, and I have changed my attitudes accordingly, but simply as a person, I think this is perhaps something I can call my own. Going to Vassar has made me realize that in the end, we get to call our own virtues.

John F. Kennedy Airport on my way back to Japan in 2015 (I think)

By the time I was flying to England for my study abroad trip, I didn’t have a hint of nervousness or even excitement. Don’t get me wrong: I was ecstatic to be going to England and incredibly grateful for the opportunity, but I already had an idea of what life would be like. I would try to meet new people, make new friends and try new things. I was calm about the whole ordeal because I had developed this theory about going abroad. I believe that there are certain kinds of people that I will meet no matter where I go. There are people who will remind you of someone you met in the past, and you will instantly recognize that feeling. In this sense, with time, I have overcome the feeling of homesickness, as over time I will meet the same friends over and over again. It’s quite possible that I haven’t explored the world enough to disprove my own theory, but so far I’m sticking to it. It’s strange to think that to someone else, I might actually remind them of yet another person I have never met. This mindset has made me appreciate the various individuals, character traits and personalities I encounter throughout the world, and how I’ll never forget the friends I make because there will always be someone who will remind me of them somewhere down the line.

Talking about my experiences abroad on national radio!


Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

Zander Bashaw | Bologna, Italy | Post 2

More Freedom in Italy

My second month in Italy has been an effective loosening of the leash on the part of the program directors. Perhaps that is a bad metaphor, because the program trips on the first weekend to see mosaics and towers are not a limiting or controlling experience in the slightest. What I mean to say is that our tours around Bologna and nearby cities were similar to taking a dog for a spin around the suburbs, and in contrast, this past month has been an utter dog park, in which the only boundaries are my poor planning skills and my ever-dwindling bank account balance.

I submitted the last post from the Bologna airport before a four day adventure in Budapest with six other kids on the program, three of them fellow Vassar students. Having survived a flight with my knees crammed into the back of a seat clearly designed for smaller Europeans, we arrived to our Airbnb on the West side of Budapest. Highlights from the next few days include an exceptional day trip to Vienna and a view of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece “The Kiss” that in person could make even an Act I Scrooge emote. It was also remarkable to visit the outdoor baths in Budapest and see hundreds of pruney-fingered people relaxing together, regardless of nationality. I found that environment hard to leave, aside from the fact that doing so meant a 100 foot walk through the bitter cold air.

One weekend, I decided on a whim that I wanted to do a day trip to Florence, alone. One thing that has definitely taken a hit here in Italy has been my time spent, as they say here “da solo.” Perhaps this is partially due to the fact that Italians are quite friendly and social, even to strangers. It might also also stem from having a roommate. Regardless, without the quantity of homework that forced me to garrison myself in a cell of the library basement like a monk in one of the monasteries I have visited, I have found myself secretly yearning to unlock my apartment to find it empty, at least just for a little while. Thus, I decided to catch one of the first fast trains out, and the last one back to Bologna for a complete day in the city. Having had a bit of an experience last month with works of art that are dozens of times more powerful than when they came from a projector, I figured I would need all the time I could get.

Perhaps because it was a bit cloudy, maybe because February is the tourism offseason, or because I timed the day well, but I spent a total of 15 of minutes in line all day, roughly equivalent to how long I stood in front of Titian’s Venus of Urbino. The Uffizi gallery was European Art History’s greatest hits album. Room after room was filled with items from my Art 105 monument list handout. I pondered how, apart from her divinity of course, Botticelli’s Venus could stand on a clam in that position so effortlessly. I reveled at the pained look on the replicate Laocoön as he and his children are killed by serpents, remembering my own pain of translating that scene of the Aeneid. I enjoyed seeing the Baptism of Christ, a work that Leonardo co-painted with his mentor, and being able to clearly identify the parts completed by the young genius by their distinct style. When my mentors let me engage in a project, it usually results in a few ruined experiments, not a world renowned work of art.

Because I had savvily Googled “things to do in Florence,” the day mostly passed in expected splendor. However, there was one unexpected spectacle that was truly absurd. As I approached the Piazza Santa Croce, I discovered a crowd of people around a makeshift arena filled with sand and an assortment of paunchy old men in Renaissance-era clothing competing in a strange sport that involves colliding with each other and tossing a ball around. I learned from asking the Florentines also watching that the game is called “calcio storico” (historic soccer), or calcio fiorentino, and has roots in the Renaissance. The game seems to be a combination of handball and rugby, in which teams try to move a heavy ball to the other end of the pitch and score a “caccia” by throwing it into an elevated net that sits a few feet above the ground and spans the width of the field. However, they must be accurate, because an attempt missed over the net is a half point to the other team. From what I saw there is almost no physical contact that is illegal; even the old men were striking each other with tremendous force. Of course, as a perennial intramural tryhard, I was thrilled to watch, not just the game, but the traditional serenading of the winners by others who had watched the match also dressed in clothes from 500 years ago. I found out later that traditionally the winning team would also receive a cow, but sadly I did not see this happen.

A modern Renaissance man outside the calcio storico field
Calcio storico

For some reason, among all my plans for that day, unexpectedly finding the calcio storico match—which a bartender later told me was in honor of a game held in this same location in 1530 when the city was under siege—was the most entertaining and enlightening. Seeing the figures crashing in the sand to the delight of the locals and tourists alike brought more vitality into the austere environment presented by the Duomo, Ghiberti’s gold doors, or the gigantic David.