Peninsula Tour

Another weekend, another IES trip! This time we traveled down the Cape Peninsula towards Cape Point, the most southwestern tip of Africa. We started our day by heading to Hout Bay, a neighborhood south of Table Mountain and along the Atlantic Ocean that is home to the Hout Bay Market. Along the dock at the bay, there were some street stands and a couple cafés that we peaked into before boarding a boat taking us to Seal Island. About 20 minutes out to sea are some large rocks that jet out of the water just enough for seals to have a nice place to rest and lay out in the sun. I don’t think I’d ever seen so many seals at once! There were tons of seals laying out on the rocks, as well as some flopping around in the water putting on a show for us.

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The seals at Seal Island

After being entertained by the seals for a while, we made our way back to shore and on the bus to our next stop. As we drove away from Hout Bay, up on the mountainside, we passed several viewpoint stops along the highway, until we got to the best one. We hopped of the bus to snap a few photos of the beautiful view. It seems like no matter where you go in Cape Town, there’s always a breathtaking view of a mountain!

The view of Hout Bay from the highway
My friend, Noelle, and I at the highway viewpoint

The next stop was Boulder Beach, which is famous for its wild penguins! The African Penguin can only be found on the southwestern coast of South Africa and mainly Boulder Beach. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go onto the beach with the penguins, but we were able to walk along a boardwalk and get pretty close to them! Winter is when a lot of the babies hatch, so we saw quite a few feathery penguins. Their feathers don’t become water proof until they’re about 3 months old, so it was easy to spot which ones were the babies. Definitely a highlight of the day!

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The penguins at Boulder Beach


Even though I could probably sit and watch the penguins waddle around and dive into the water for hours, we left Boulder Beach to grab lunch and head to our final destination: Cape Point. The most southwestern tip of Africa is at the tip of the Cape of Good Hope within the Table Mountain National Park. We spent a few minutes at Cape Point on the beach taking in the views and capturing some quick photos of the edge. But, the better views came once we started an hour hike up to the Old Cape Point Lighthouse which is at the highest peak. Along the hike and at the top by the lighthouse, we looked out over the ocean and at beautiful mountain landscapes. Every direction you turned was a spectacular view and once we got to the top, it almost felt like we were in a cloud.

Cape Point
Views along the hike towards Old Cape Point Lighthouse
Views from the Old Cape Point Lighthouse


This trip was full of incredible sights and fun excursions and made me ready to explore more of South Africa!

Arrival in Sydney

The first taste of Sydney that I received was as the plane was touching down from Dallas, the pilot who came on the overhead speaker greeted us with “Welcome to Sydney, Australia, the most beautiful city on earth, although I may be a little biased.” Unfortunately, I needed to get on my flight to Cairns before I could actually see Sydney which felt like a tremendous tease. Now; however, I have been living in Sydney for a week, and I have been impressed. I should mention that Sydney isn’t exactly what I expected it to be, a lot of the preconceived notions about what living in Sydney would be like have actually been turned on their head quite quickly. Firstly, because Australia is in the southern hemisphere it is currently the middle of winter which means that the weather isn’t always all that warm, and daylight hours are short. I was expecting the less than warm weather and had packed accordingly. It’s worth mentioning that during the day the temperatures are still plenty comfortable, typically in the sun it gets to the mid-60s or so but in the mornings and evenings the temperature gets down to about 40 degrees which is plenty cold but like I mentioned earlier I was prepared for cooler temps. What I was NOT prepared for has been the short daylight hours! The sun begins to set around 3 o’clock and it is dark out by 6 o’clock, which has been just absolutely brutal. I just keep reminding myself that the daylight hours will only increase while I’m here and that thought alone has helped me push through.

Macquarie University, where I am studying this semester is about a half hour outside of Sydney’s central business district or CBD and is the home of Sydney’s second largest business district in the city. Within the first week I have already gone downtown three times and I made several other observations that I was not expecting prior to landing in Sydney. Sydney is not nearly as flat as other major cities that I have visited. While portions of the CBD are fairly flat, Macquarie, and many other parts of Sydney are extremely hilly. The other aspect of Sydney that I noticed which I had not expected is that Sydney, and I believe much of Australia, has a much larger Asian influence than I had expected. Once again if I were to take the time to logically think about it, this makes sense. Australia is far closer to Asia than it is to Europe and despite the initial colonization by Great Britain, in today’s globalized world it would only be natural that Australia would be influenced by the countries that are closest. This has led to an impressive Chinatown in downtown Sydney, as well as some of the greatest Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Indian food (amongst others) that can be found outside of those countries. Needless to say, I am quite excited to test that claim.

This pig statue is just outside of the Royal Botanical Garden and rubbing it’s snout is supposed to give you good luck.
I accidently got lost but that gave me the opportunity to walk through Darling Harbour where a street artist was working on this piece in chalk!

One of the great aspects of living in Macquarie rather than actually downtown in the CBD is that I am living around much more nature and national parks. In fact I have one national park that is just about a five minute walk from where I live! I have been able to explore some of these areas and other areas outside of downtown Sydney but more of that will be included in later posts. Nevertheless, having so much nature so close is helpful in that it allows me some space from the fast pace of city life. It’s worth noting that Sydney is not as hectic and fast moving as cities like New York. In fact one night a couple of friends and I were trying to find our way back home because we hadn’t realized that most trains stopped running after midnight and so at around 1 o’clock we were walking around the city trying to find the bus stop and at that point the city had become significantly quieter. I noticed few cars on the street and few people walking around, whereas New York it seems that cars and people are a constant presence regardless of the time of day.

This was on the top of a rock outcropping (there are LOTS of those here) in Lane Cove national park which is only a five minute walk from my apartment.

Walking around downtown I naturally was immediately drawn to the two major buildings that Sydney is known for: the Opera house and the Harbour Bridge. After seeing it up close, I have decided that the Sydney Opera house is my favorite building in the world. From any angle you look at the Opera house the building looks fantastic and at any time of the day. I also learned that construction on the house was expected to take four years but actually took fourteen years to complete. The building also cost over fourteen times the originally projected amount. I was able to meet up with a friend of mine who is a part of Hope’s dance troupe and was on tour in Australia at the time, and we ate on the terrace of the museum of contemporary art to watch the sun go down over the bridge with the Opera house in the background. On another day a different friend and I walked through the Royal Botanical Gardens and climbed atop a rock outcropping to once again watch the sunset. In both instances the view was spectacular and I couldn’t help but be awed by the beauty of this city. Before we went our separate ways, my friend from Hope said to me “I sure hope you never get sick of sights like this.” I’m pretty confident that I never will.

This was from on top of some rocks just beyond the Royal Botantical Gardens.

This was the meal on top of the Museum of Contemporary Art. I tried kangaroo for the first time! I felt a little bad for eating it but it was delicious.


My Bustling and Colorful Walk to Class

It blows my mind that I have already spent two weeks in Valparaíso, Chile. The time has flown thanks to my wonderful host family and my extremely colorful walk to class. Living in the middle of the city of Valparaíso – commonly referred to as Valpo by the locals – has introduced me to many unique experiences and allowed me to immerse myself in a culture brand new to me.

Every morning, I am awakened by flocks of birds chirping as they fight for their food and by hordes of locals shouting as they sell any and every item you could possibly need. My walk to PUCV, the university I am attending while here in Chile, takes a short five minutes and covers only three blocks of the city, but it always feels as if I am walking through a whole new world.

Culture overwhelms me from the moment I step out of my door as street vendors approach me continuously, shouting the names and prices of random items they hope to sell, to the end of my first block. Cultural encounters continue as I move to the second block of my journey to school, which is by far my favorite. This block consists of tables and tables showcasing mounds of shiny, ripe, and juicy fruits and vegetables. As I walk, everything around me becomes a blur of yellows, oranges, reds, and greens. The area teems with life as people hustle to complete their early morning shopping. Here in Chile, it is tradition to buy only enough for two days maximum so that the food is always fresh (quite the opposite of most American families who shop to fill their fridges for weeks at a time). The sunlight reflecting the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, the scents of fresh food, the shouts of local Spanish-speakers, and the feeling of Chileans hurriedly brushing up against me are some of the strongest sensations I experience as I attempt to scramble through the crowd. I eventually break through the masses and begin walking my third and final block.

The final block is flooded with college students passing time with friends between classes, soaking in the sun and breathing in the fresh air. I continue forward, approaching what seems to be an ancient castle, and find myself arriving at the beautiful Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. The single building before me is the home of knowledge. Of growth. Of challenge. Of opportunity. It is a place that has already challenged and encouraged me in so many ways, and I know it will continue to do so.

I never imagined it would be possible to experience so much culture in three short blocks. I’ve recognized that my walk to class is more than just a walk; it is a journey through the most beautiful chaos that I have ever experienced. These few minutes allow me to forget everything else, to be present, and to soak in the beauty of Valpo’s culture as I prepare myself for another full day of classes and adventures awaiting. And to think, this is just the beginning…

UCT Academics

One of the biggest culture shocks I’ve had so far would have to be school at UCT. Even starting out at orientation and registration it was much different. In the US most schools have an online registration process near the end of the previous semester in order to sign up for classes and figure out your schedule. At UCT, however, the registration process involves various steps and needs to be completed in person after waiting in multiple lines. So, coming into the semester I didn’t know what classes I would end up taking. After standing in line to talk to an academic advisor and present what classes I was interested in taking, I was able to register for two courses and had to wait to seek approval from a faculty member for my third course. Then on the first day of class, I had to find the course convener for the psychology course I wanted to add, have her sign the course addition document, go stand in a line for 45 minutes to have an academic advisor approve the course, and finally go stand in another line to have someone manually input the course into my schedule. Although registration at Hope can be stressful, this experience made me very appreciative of registration at Hope and how quick and easy it is.

Now, after the first week of classes, I have a set schedule including three courses at UCT and one through the IES program. At first when deciding to go abroad, I figured I would be able to have a schedule that would allow me to have class fewer days each week and longer weekends, but little did I know that classes at UCT can meet up to 4 days a week and include an additional tutorial session. My Cognitive Neuroscience and Abnormal Psychology course has four 45-minute lectures and one 45-minute tutorial every week. The lectures are taught by the professor and have about 500 students, whereas the tutorials are taught by an assistant professor or post-graduate student and only include about 20 students. Being in a lecture this large will definitely take some getting used to since the largest class I’ve been a part of before at Hope was only 60 students. Having the tutorials is really helpful though because we are able to go over lecture material in a smaller group, making it easier to ask questions and get to know class mates.

My 500 student psychology lecture

The way professors and assistant professors grade in South Africa is something I will have to get used to as well. In the US, we are used to having points taken off for getting an answer wrong or not writing enough detail about something in a paper, for example. Here, however, points are awarded for doing something right or doing what the professor expects. Because of that, it is much harder to get a 100% on something here. Anything between a 75% and 100% here is equivalent to an A, and A’s are hard to come by at UCT. So, I will have to adjust my brain to not freak out if I get a 68% on a quiz or test because that would be a B+, not a D.

The size of UCT has also been an adjustment for me, as it has about 30,000 undergraduate students and much larger campus than I am used to. UCT campus is on the side of Table Mountain, which means it is uphill and has three different levels: lower, middle, and upper campus. To walk from my house on lower campus to upper campus can take about 20 minutes, and it’s not always a leisurely walk. They also have a Jammie shuttle that takes students from lower campus up, but you have to get to the stop pretty early in order to ensure you’ll get a spot on the bus. So, I usually just opt for making the walk up to class.

The view on my walk to school
The view on my walk back home
Part of Middle Campus on my walk back home

Even though there have been a lot of challenges in adjusting to this new learning environment, I am very excited for this semester and the courses I am taking. Three out of the four courses I am taking are focused on African culture or society. Probably the course I am most looking forward to is African Instrument, where I will be learning different African drumming styles and techniques along with other traditional African instruments! I am also taking an African Religious Traditions course which focuses on Indigenous religions, African Islam, and African Christianity. It will be interesting to see the similarities and differences between religion in Africa and in the US throughout this course. The third African focused class I am taking is through the IES program and is called Community Health in Context. This course focuses on the health care system in South Africa and how it has progressed and affected the community. This course also involves a service learning component, where I will complete 40 hours of service at a volunteer site and complete 20 hours of research throughout the semester related to my volunteer site and the health care system in South Africa. I will be volunteering with a UCT organization called SHAWCO Health where I will assist UCT Medical Students at mobile clinics that travel to townships around Cape Town. I am very excited and eager to be a part of this organization and not only experience medical care in South Africa but to meet individuals from various townships as well and be able to learn from them.

Academically, I think this semester will be challenging and something I have to adjust to, but I am looking forward to learning about South Africa in the class room!

Arrive Down Under

One week has past since I have arrived in Cairns, Australia and it has been busier than I possibly could have imagined. Cairns is known as the “Adventure Capital of Australia,” and the city lives up to its reputation. The city itself is a northern coastal town surrounded by beaches, marinas, and water on one side and mountains on the other. The city has a similar feel to Florida beach towns in many ways with open air restaurants and bars right on the water, as well as a multitude of tourists. As I took evening walks downtown I passed groups of people speaking languages from across the globe, many of which I could not recognize. Unlike Florida, however, the people and tourists of Cairns do not go to the beach when they want to cool off, rather, they have a city lagoon which is similar to a massive public pool in which the residents of the city can swim. The reason for avoiding the beaches of Cairns is that they are filled with saltwater crocodiles, jellyfish of many varieties, including box jellys, stonefish, and sharks, just to name a few. Fortunately, Cairns has plenty to offer without going to the beach.
On my second day in Cairns we went out onto the Great Barrier Reef to go snorkeling and scuba diving. Never in my life have I been filled with so much awe and sadness at the same time. The reef was a thing of beauty with fish and coral of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Angelfish, parrot fish, regal blue tang fish looked like the glittering lights of a Christmas tree as they swam by me. Unfortunately, the reef also is no longer what it used to be as a result of environmental destruction. Reef bleaching has sucked out so much of the vibrant colors of the reef, and although there certainly were areas of breathtaking beauty, significant portions of the reef looked more skeletal with white coral being contrasted with a bright spot of nearby color. The marine biologist aboard our ship told us that it is projected that within the next five years there will be more plastic in the world’s’ oceans than there are fish, and that coral grows at the rate of centimeters per year so destruction to any portion of it could be the destruction of decades of natural growth. Even seemingly small things like sunscreen could damage the reef and we were instructed to apply sunscreen at least a half an hour before entering the water. It was humbling to realize that a living structure the size of Japan could be simultaneously so fragile, and it gave me a greater understanding of environmentalism.

Here are a couple of pictures from my scuba/snorkeling experience

Here you can see how low the tide got as the reef is actually beginning to come out of the water
This is a picture just outside of the hotel I was staying at while in Cairns

On day three, I had the opportunity to go canyoning in Crystal Cascades with a group of others and our tour guides which was wild! Admittedly, I felt a bit dorky at first as we pulled up into the park wearing wet suits, helmets, and harnesses, meanwhile we walk past little kids and their parents simply wearing bathing suits. Crystal Cascades is a waterfall and river system which provides the drinking water for the city of Cairns. At certain points in the river that becomes wider, deeper, with a weaker current and the locals use those places like an all natural swimming pool. After we passed all of the families, we arrived at a massive gate with barbed wire wrapping across the top. The guides led us through and we started a hike up an incredibly steep hill. Once we made it to the top of the hill we began canyoning down which consisted of abseiling, cliff jumping, swimming, and zip lining down the river/waterfall system to the bottom. The entire experience was simply amazing as we scaled down waterfalls in a gorge surrounded by the Australian rain forest. Needless to say, I was quite happy for the safety equipment that made me feel so foolish earlier, particularly helmet as I slipped going down one of the main waterfalls and slammed into the side of the cliff.

Here is a picture of the group after finishing the canyoning

Finally, on day four I went into Daintree Rainforest with an aboriginal tour guide as he taught us both about his culture and about his land. Before we started our hike, we were asked to join in a smoking ceremony where the guides made a small fire underneath a cover so that the smoke would billow out onto which we were told would protect us from any danger as we entered the forest. My guide, Skip, once again mentioned how the Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest rainforest and that it is the only rainforest that has never had any primates other than humans. As a result, the fruits in Daintree are far more toxic than the fruits found in other rainforests around the world. Skip also taught us about stinging plants in Australia and how they have tiny hairs on the leaves which is embed into your skin and sends four different toxins into your muscles (one of which scientists have yet to discover what it is!) when they are touched and the needles can stay embedded in your skin from anywhere between two weeks to two years! I made sure to take careful notes regarding what that plant looked like in order to avoid it in the future. Skip also told us about how the aboriginal people would use barbed vines as hooks and fishing line when they went fishing. He also told us about how the aboriginal people would use glowing mushrooms to allow them to see when hunting at night, which I thought sounded like something straight out of the movie Avatar. Skip then took us to a river which ran through the rainforest and he told us that this river was the water supply for the city and it was entirely safe to drink which naturally led to all of us students filling up our water bottles with the river water and I must say it was fantastic. After finishing our hike through the rainforest we went to a wildlife reserve where I was able to get up close and personal with a lot of animals native to Australia. I had the opportunity to feed wallabies and kangaroos, as well as pet a koala and see other animals like emus and cassowaries.
At the end of the week, all of the students who were apart of my program said our goodbyes and made our way to our respective universities across Australia. This first week has been busy, and action-packed, and it has felt like something out of a dream. As my plane took off to Sydney and I watched the mountains and rainforest shrink in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to study abroad. At times it has been difficult for me to comprehend the reality of the whole situation because I am quite literally on the opposite side of the planet right now and having experiences that I have only previously dreamed of which have each been incredible! Now off to Sydney to see what Australia’s biggest city and the home of my new university has to offer!

The bus ride into the Daintree forest was pretty scenic too

This is the river which acts as the water supply for Cairns

This is Humphry, the Koala I got to meet
Feeding the kangaroos and wallabies was so cool

Paris Reflections!


Since I arrived back in Michigan, I have been thinking and reflecting on my summer semester in Paris. I kept a journal from the first day I arrived in Paris, and detailed every moment and funny memory. Looking back, I am so glad I did this because I was able to better understand what I learned and see how I adapted to a foreign culture. Studying abroad in Paris was undoubtedly the best adventure in my life so far. I met the most incredible group of people through IES, who became my close friends I am blessed to have lived in France over the summer. If I typed out everything I learned about living in a foreign country, we would be here for hours. So to save the trouble, here is a short list of the best lessons I learned while living and studying in Paris:

  1. “So much of who we are is where we have been.” -William Langewiesche. I found this quote written in graffiti on a wall in Paris near the Seine River, and it resonated with me as I progressed through studying abroad. I felt myself becoming more adventurous, where I traveled by myself to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Stonehenge. I felt myself becoming more comfortable speaking a language I had never studied before, where I was not afraid speaking French with locals. I felt myself falling in love with Paris. So much of who I am will remain in Paris.
  2. Bread will never be the same. When it comes to bakeries, the French have this perfected to an art. I probably ate my weight in croissants and baguettes, but French bread is incredibly delicious. My favorite dessert, and what I will miss the most about French food, is Pan du Chocolat (chocolate-filled croissant). Hopefully I can find an authentic French bakery in Michigan!
  3. Travel. Travel. Travel. Traveling within Europe is incredibly cheap and easy. When are you ever going to live in a foreign country again in your life? Take advantage of every opportunity and leave no stone unturned. My group and I went to London, England together, and I went to Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg by myself. My group was more interested in exploring Paris than traveling far, but I didn’t let that falter my plans. Even if you have to go alone, don’t regret not going somewhere. I had a blast both on my own and with my group. Also, I learned how to book travel accommodations and research places to go all on my own. When my flights were delayed and trains became cancelled due to strikes, I figured out alternate routes on my own last minute. How cool is that? Travel, and travel far.
  4. The Eiffel Tower never gets old. From the first time I saw the Iron Lady to the last night under the sparkling lights, I never grew tired of looking at how beautiful the tower is. Every Wednesday, my friends and I had a picnic under the tower to watch the sunset and sparkling lights. I always looked forward to every Wednesday, and could not get enough of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the top of the tower isn’t bad either, but I’d much rather watch the lights sparkle with a baguette and wine from our secret terrace we found.
  5. Take the leap and study abroad. I have to admit, I was a little nervous just before I left. I had never traveled on my own before and had never been to Europe. I would have to learn a new language and learn to navigate a foreign country. Luckily, the nerves went away the second I got to my apartment. I fell in love with Paris and made incredible friends in my study abroad group. I learned a ton in my classes that I know will take me far in the rest of my studies. I created internship connections through my professors. I tried food I never thought I would dare eat. I traveled alone to other countries. I saw Stonehenge. Nothing will ever compare to what I experienced, and most importantly, I learned that a classroom is much more than four white walls.

Take the leap and study abroad; you just might learn something about the world around you.

À bientôt, et je t’aime Paris!

-Alissa Smith

The Garden Route

Last weekend was full of crossing things off the South Africa bucket list! IES organized a road trip for us along the Garden Route, a stretch of southern South Africa that is made up of farmland and some incredible sights. We had an early morning Friday to drive to our first destination, Wilderness. Wilderness is home to the Touw River, where we got to canoe and look at the mountains and hills surrounding the water. It was a bit chilly to be canoeing, but still a fun way to experience Wilderness and do some sight-seeing.

The IES group on the beach of the Touw River after canoeing!

On Saturday we made our way to Tsitsikamma National Park and hiked to the suspension bridge that overlooks the Indian Ocean. Despite the pouring rains, this hike was amazing. The views were spectacular and full of beautiful plant life and animals. Once we made it to the suspension bridge we were able to walk across and see down the river between the mountains on one side and out into the ocean on the other. It stopped raining right after we crossed the bridge, so we were able to walk back to the beach rain free which was a nice break, even though we were all already drenched.

Sarah, another Hope student, and me on the suspension bridge at Tsitsikamma National Park.
View of the mountains from the suspension bridge.
View of the suspension bridge and the outlook of the Indian Ocean.

After we dried off a bit we had the choice of going to four different animal encounters: monkeys, birds, big cats, or elephants. The majority of people chose the same as me and went to the elephant reservation where they save elephants from zoos and trafficking to put them in a natural and safe environment. We were able to get up close with the elephants and meet them which was one of the most exciting parts of this trip! We got to walk with the elephants while holding their trunks, pet them, feel their ears and tails, and hug their trunks. I also got to feed them chunks of cantaloupe and they grabbed it right out of my hand with their trunks and tried to take it from my hand even if they weren’t the elephant I was trying to feed. It was a really fun way to encounter elephants and learn more about them!

Walking with an elephant!
Learning about the elephants from our guide, Charlie.
Giving the elephant a hug!

Sunday, our last day of the Garden Route trip, we headed to Congo. In Congo we went to the famous caves that were discovered by a Dutch farmer who was looking for a lost sheep. We did the adventure tour, which meant that we had to crawl through tight spaces to get to some of the caverns. The rocks and formations inside the caves were really cool and took hundreds of thousands of years to form. Even though some of the crevices we had to fit through were tight and a little nerve-racking, it was definitely worth it to see what the caves had to offer.

Our final stop on the trip was to an African ostrich farm. Ostriches in South Africa are farmed for their meat and leather and are also used to herd and protect sheep. There was a handful of ostriches that they let us interact with. The first ostrich we saw was a dwarf ostrich who had a mutation causing him to be significantly shorter than the typical ostrich. We were able to feed him pellets out of our hands, and he had a surprisingly powerful bite and sharp beak. We then met Betsy, a full grown ostrich that the farm rescued. The tour guide said that Betsy is an unusually friendly ostrich, whereas typical ostriches are very aggressive and protective. Since Betsy is friendly and enjoys being around people, everyone got a chance to pet her and get an ostrich hug! The tour guide then asked us if we wanted to get an ostrich neck massage. We figured this meant standing with your back to a bunch of ostriches while holding a bucket of food. The ostriches reached over my head and around my neck in order to eat from the bucket. They were going at the food pretty hard and I definitely got hit in the face by an ostrich head a couple times, but it was worth it.

The dwarf ostrich – significantly shorter than the average ostrich.
Getting a hug from Betsy!
Getting a neck massage from the other ostriches by feeding them!

It was a really fun trip and a neat way to see more of South Africa other than Cape Town, but I am definitely excited to be back in Cape Town and become more familiar with the city I will be living in for the next four months!