A Cross Section of Classes (Part One)

So far I am loving the classes I am taking here, so I thought I would share a short summary of what I am taking and why I love them in. This will be in two parts, because apparently I love them more than one post can contain.

Spanish Class (in Spanish): Before coming to Spain, the most recent class I had taken was AP Spanish senior year of high school, so I was quite nervous about learning the language and being able to get by. However, I am now taking a class at the University of Granada with all Spanish speakers and getting by so I think it has improved quite a bit. In class, we mostly review grammer that I have already learned and do fun activities. The worst part of the class is by far having to wake up for it!  

Islamic Art and Architecture (in English): This class is by far my favorite because I feel like it combines everything I have learned in my life so far: history, math, physics, philosophy, artistic design, religion and a little bit of politics. Because in Islam it is prohibited to display figures in public places, they developed very complex geometric designs. These designs aren´t just beautiful, they also represent their worldview and philosophical ideas, just using shapes and colors! The easiest one to describe (but still quite difficult) is the representation of God radiating through everything and everything starting from him. For both the patterns below (roof on the left, tiles on the right), a pattern with a variable of 8 begins with some design of star in the middle. Especially for the tile pattern, the visual understanding or continued expansion of the pattern could not be continued without starting from the center. It is also a very unifying idea because most believers in monotheistic religions, if not most spiritual people, would agree with this idea. These patterns are also echoed everywhere throughout the buildings, from floors to ceilings to doors! 

Ceiling woodwork in a private section of the Alhambra that they opened specifically for our class!
Wall Tiles
Extremely intricate wall tiles from the Alhambra. Probably from the 14th century.

Village Study

I’m currently in the midst of a two week village study in an even more southern region of France! I’ve been quite busy and discovering a multitude of things, so I’ll do updates in installments as not to overwhelm. 


The first three days were with the whole program in the most beautiful city, Collioure.  It’s right in vineyard, ocean, mini-mountain territory and just a hop away from Spain!  Here we discovered a bit of the history of the “Retirada,” a movement of Spanish refugees to southern France in the late 1930s to escape Fascist persecution.  Actually, it just so happens that we hiked one of the paths that some of the 500,000 Spanish immigrants used! 


It was a bizarre sensation to be in one place and speaking French, walking for an hour or so, and then being in a new country and completely at a loss for words.  We had lunch in the little Spanish village we hiked to and it involved a lot of creative communication.


Also in Collioure, we began looking at the history and current state of Catalogne culture.  Catalogne is a cultural region that is mostly in Spain (with Bareclona as its capitol), but it reaches into the south-eastern regions of France.  The language and culture are alive and well in the Spanish region, however they are fading in France.   This is largely due to France’s extremely centralized education system which determines much of the curriculum for all schools in the nation.  Nevertheless, there were plenty of red and yellow flags and donkeys (symbols of Catalogne) to be found.

Now I am living in a homestay in a small town doing a research project of my choosing.  The town is about a 10 minute drive from the ocean, a 30 minute drive from Spain, and an hour and half bus ride to the mountains.  And thankfully, I know each of these travel times through experience! 🙂

Real Holland

It was that time of the year and my facebook newsfeed was overwhelmed with nothing but pictures from Spring Break. While rest of Hope College was on Spring Break, I had four papers and a mid-term to worry about soon after which I had my Spring Break. One of the best things about being in Europe during this type of break is that I got to travel to a totally different country.

It was ironic that I went to Holland for my Spring break. Not the one in Michigan but the one in Europe and exploring the country was a fun way to discover more about the “real Holland”. When you ask someone who has not been to Holland, they would usually perceive it as being very liberal in terms of a lot of things that are usually frowned upon. But there is more to Holland than that meets the eyes only in Amsterdam. Do not get me wrong, Amsterdam is a beautiful city but one you are around it enough you get the feeling that it is filled with way many tourists than you thought. My first encounter with the city was the somewhat similar to that; I thought it was lovely, bizarre, and memorable but at the same time I thought how I could not live there and how it was a tourist attraction.

I would have definitely seen Netherlands in the lights of Amsterdam if I had not explored other smaller cities. I managed to go to Leiden and Rotterdam which gave me a sense of both cultural and industrial sides of Holland. While Leiden was a small cozy city that I could see myself living in, Rotterdam was somewhat similar to any major city in the United States. From one of the oldest college in Europe to one of the largest harbor in the world, exploring Netherlands gave me a chance to get out of my comfort zone, speculate stereotypes, and make judgments after engagement. The country is so much different than how normal outsiders think of it.

I would love to post some pictures but I have not managed to download them yet. I just got back from one trip and I am already packing for another that starts tomorrow. It is a 9 day trip where my program is helping us see how EU influences its member states. I will make sure to keep everyone updated. 

At the heart of Valparaiso is Cerro Rodelillo

parade!Pasta lunch in Plaza Renacer!a peek at the mural!kids help hang the sign for the new Plaza Renacer!me and one the kids takin a break from painting!

Hey everyone!

So  this past weekend, I had an amazing community service opportunity with my program here in Valparaiso, and could not wait to share it with you! I defiantly would say it is one of my favorite things I’ve done in these past five weeks in Chile!

SIT is a study abroad program that is sort of unique in that we are not directly enrolled in a university, but participate in tons of cultural excursions and community service opportunities. Our first community service project was this past weekend in Cerro Rodelillo (Cerros are the neighborhoods that make up Valparaiso.) This cerro in particular is home to  a largely lower-class population, where many of the houses are made from scrap metal and children play in streets glittering in glass. Its defiantly not where the city tour buses will take you. More recently, on feb 14th, 2013, Cerro Rodelillo was the site of one of the most massive fires in Valparaiso in fifty or so years. Hundreds of houses were completely burnt down, many losing all of their material possessions.

Our job in cerro Rodelillo was not to rebuild every demolished house nor solve its the economic hardships. It was much simpler…and larger than that. As a group we cleaned and re-purposed a tiny space, a “plaza” . This dusty plaza was not only where kids could play soccer and swing, but where the community could now come together and start anew.

On Friday, our group of 25 gringos split up in several groups;  some were assigned to clean and prepare the rock wall for mural painting the next day while others played with the kids that congregated there. When the work was finished we hopped on a “micro” (bus) and back to our homes where we showered with running water and ate the “once” * our Chilean moms had prepared for us.

Saturday, however, was the day I will never forget. The wall, we had cleaned the day before was ready to be painted. Together with the kids we painted flowers, rainbows, and even the local club soccer team logo (the Santiago Wanders) with a few paint brushed and lots of bare hands. Although the finished product lacked a theme which we had originally planned for, it turned out better than we could of hoped. Then came the fun part when the kids found even more fun if they painted their “tios/tias” (us!) than the wall. By the end of the painting session everyone was covered in paint (I sported a beard painted on by one of the boys!)

After the painting session, a few of us walked up to a house that had prepared food for the whole community as part of the celebration of the “opening” of the plaza. This “house” was partly burnt to the ground by the fire, tarp walls surrounded the small kitchen area, and a Chilean flag flying above. Inside, an aproned woman inside two huge pots full of spaghetti, lettuce, and tomatoes for us to bring to the plaza. And there we sat the new found plaza, eating, laughing with kids, and conversing with moms and holding their babies. After lunch, there was a mini parade with live music, face painting, and goody bags.  The community also decided on the plaza name: Plaza Renacer, which means “rebirth”, foreshadowing the new life this plaza would bring to the area after a huge tragedy.

It was hard leaving this community which we had now felt a part of the last two days, but it was a heartwarming, too. It was not that we looked at our work as our “good deed” of the week, or that we had given this neighborhood something they could not have done. Instead, we were honored that they welcomed us with open arms, shared their stories, and invited us to be part of a celebration of hope, joy, and renacer

Amor y paz

Leah 🙂


Outsiders View (with Insider’s Info)

My parents visited me here in Spain for the Holy Week celebrations here, and there are a few things that surprised/entertained/ shocked them, so I thought all y’all might be interested to hear them:

Wifi Gratis

Wee- fee: This is how Spainards say wifi. In the eloquent words of my mother, “It sounds like pee pee!”

Table heater:  Because of the lack of central heating, they use very long table cloths and then have a heater underneath the table. The table cloth then doubles as a blanket and holds in the precious heat. It is very cozy and efficient.

City personality:  My parents were a little worried that the cities would be very Americanized. ImageWhile we did see our fair share of American brands and the occasional McDonald’s or Starbucks, they were very contented with the unique character of the cities we visited.

Walk-ability: They had heard about ease of walking in European cities and the fact that everyone walks almost everywhere.

Personal space: I’m so glad I warned them about this. For example, we were sitting on a beach looking at the med and a couple guys can up looking over the fence RIGHT next to us.

People in the streets: My parents couldn’t stop commenting on how many people were in the streets, even when there weren’t processions to celebrate Holy Week. This is because Spaniards in general really to spend much more time outside their houses than normal Americans. Almost all social interactions occur outside the house.

This is a close-up of a paso or a “float” of the religious processions that occur in Spain during Holy Week.
Here is a similar paso out during the procession.

So About the Study Part…

It’s not what usually gets talked about, but schoolwork is a significant part of the study abroad experience.  My program, Contemporary Issues in China is fairly intense.  We have Chinese class throughout the semester and Area Studies courses, which are held in intensive blocks one at a time.  Right now I’m in “China in International Relations,” already having finished “Chinese Literature” and the intro course, “Understanding China.”  I have loved my classes here.  It has been so fascinating to learn about some subjects that I’ve never learned before, and to attempt to understand China.  I think what I know most certainly is that I will never know or understand everything there is to know about the most populated and most ancient country in the world.  While a lot of my schoolwork looks like it would at Hope, with lots of reading, writing, and learning characters, the study abroad experience does provide some more unique opportunities including cool field trips and fun activities.  My final block class, “Ethnic Minorities in China” means that we get to spend two weeks in Tibet!

Last week for IR we went to the Old Summer Palace, where the emperors would live until the place burned down.  I’ve been here before, but it was so cool to learn more of the history with my professor along, and chuckle at all of the attention that 15 waiguoren in a group attract anywhere that we go.  I love that this was class for the day!

Listening to fascinating history while perched on giant rocks with my friends? I’ll take it!
Old Summer Palace ruins

For Chinese last week we went to a market and had to find items (we only had the word in Chinese), pick out a gift for someone else in our class, and talk to random people.  It was a much needed break from sitting in a classroom.  We’re at the point in the semester where people are staring to get tired and the novelty of being in China has definitely worn off in many ways.  Usually my class starts at 9, but we were told that today we had a mandatory meeting at 8 to talk about our long travel trips.  Our program director starts talking to us about shopping for hiking clothes and I can’t help but notice how distracted he is.  He says, “You need to make sure you have good hiking shoes, but we can worry about that later, today we’re cancelling classes and everyone’s going out into the city!”  Deciding in our still-tiredness that this was probably true we went downstairs to find all of the teachers and RA’s holding signs to different locations in the city.  This was Crazy Day!  A day meant to be totally fun and give us a break.  I went with two IES teachers, one of our RA’s and seven other students to Fragrant Hills Park, a large hill that we climbed on the outskirts of Beijing.  I am a Pacific Northwest girl and the constant being in the city/not being outside in nature has been getting to me.  God gave me exactly what I needed today.  Everyone was so happy to have classes cancelled, and it was a beautiful hike, even when the smog got the best of the view.  We then went to a restaurant that some kids in the group knew for lunch and it was one of the top meals I’ve had in China.  We ordered several veggie dishes, chicken, shrimp, and of course rice.  We were literally silent because everyone was so focused on eating and savoring the food.  It was incredible.  It’s these experiences outside of the classroom that I will always remember.

Getting ready to go out for Crazy Day!
The view from the top is ALWAYS worth it!
Beijing, Beijing smog. The hills on the left are the retreat center for the Communist Party.
Remnants of an awesome meal! 


Not-So-Everyday Happenings

Time is going so quickly, my mind is perpetually confused in some non-existent and illogical time frame.  My french language classes are coming to a close this Wednesday (hooray!) and Thursday I leave for a two week home stay in the mountains!!! Near the ocean!!! And a only a day-hike away from Spain!!! I’ve been looking forward to this trip since I started going through the study abroad application/decision making process, which was about this time last year.

Although lately I’ve been feeling much too into a routine for my liking, the past couple of weeks have certainly been full of their own adventures and random surprises. Here is a quick photo recap of some definite highlights!


Icicle wall from a hike in the French countryside.  A benefit of less-than-warm and very sporadic weather is icicles mingled with moss.



Cheese, wine, and bread. This was one of many glorious moments where French food stereotypes prove themselves true. This is the cheese cave at Chez Xavier, one of the best cheese stores in France and certainly the best in Toulouse. It’s quite the complicated process to produce these cheeses!




Some surprises in the city!  During downtime between classes and volunteering we often wander the streets and browse the through the shops (and botanical gardens?). Toulouse has a a relatively small, but very concentrated down town area so there is always plenty to explore and stumble upon!


This is the gospel choir that I sing with on Thursday nights with my host mom. Quite the experience! I wasn’t able to perform this Sunday because I don’t know all of the songs yet, but hopefully next time I’ll be able to join in with certainly the most animated gospel choir in all of France. 


And last but not least, I saw Mumford & Sons!!! They were playing in Toulouse and I snagged a ticket via Facebook and a healthy dose of faith in humanity (which proved successful and not naive. Yay!) It was my second time seeing them live (the first in the U.S.) and it was certainly a very different experience, but very much cherished!

Next time I write, I hopefully be in a little mountain village!

À la prochaine!

Living in German Dorm

Everyone who lives in a US college dorm know that the best way to get to know people is leaving your dorm doors open. In Germany however, people like to close their doors. This does not mean that they are trying to avoid you though. Every time I have needed anything I just go and knock on any of my flat mates door; the funny thing is they tell you that Germans like to close the doors and make you feel comfortable about the sudden cultural change simply related to the opening and closing of doors.

I really don’t know if it is a good thing or a bad thing that they don’t have meal plans here. On one side I get to cook for myself and feel that I am ready to take on the world outside college but everyone has those lazy days when they just want to go and get a sandwich from the Kletz or Phelps and not have to worry about doing the dishes. Personally, I have enjoyed cooking here especially when all the dishes and cooking tools are already provided in your dorms. I admit it, sometimes I really feel lazy and want something fast and that is when Doner Kebabs come into play; probably one of the things that I will miss a lot when I get back to the States.

Today I had one of the best interactions with one of my flat mate. They were playing some songs while we were all cooking food and most of what I have heard was in German; almost made me think that they did not listen to English songs that are very prevalent in United States. Then there was a change in playlist and I was surprised to listen to what started playing; they had some Doors, some Pink Floyd, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and even few country songs which is hardly even heard outside few states back in US. It is indeed a globalized world.

The picture quality of where I live did not come out that great due to the lack of light in the hallway but students here conserve energy in any way possible. 



Unexpected & Beautiful: Chengdu

This past weekend was a long travel weekend, so we had Friday off of classes.  On Thursday night, I flew with two of my friends to the city of Chengdu (成都) in the Sichuan Province of western China.  We originally decided to go there because it is the only place in the world where you can hold a panda, and there are other awesome sights as well.  It turns out that holding a panda is $300 US dollars per person.  Our flights cost less than that.  Needless to say, I decided not to do what I had gone to Chengdu to do, however, it was the other unexpected things that made the weekend so awesome!

My favorite moment of the weekend was one that was totally unexpected, not usually considered at all desirable, but absolutely spontaneously hilarious.  Three friends and I were riding back from the Sichuan Opera when our car broke down.  Straight up stalled out in the middle of the road.  Out we got to push.  If the sight of four laowai pushing a van down the street wasn’t enough, a bus pulls up beside us and stops at the intersection.  There were probably about 30 Chinese people on board who were all staring at us, some of them literally, with mouths wide open.  We could not stop laughing.  They all looked so confused, and the absurdity and adrenaline rush of the situation made everything that much funnier.  I will never forget that, totally unexpected or planned, yet hilarious nonetheless.

–Three things I appreciate about flying in China: free food, free checked bags and you don’t have to take off your shoes to go through security.  Meet Marytha and Alyssa!  We had a great weekend together.


–We got in the car to go on our day tour of the Leshan Buddha (the largest Buddha in the world) and the pandas to find some kids from IES Shanghai.  What are the chances of that?  They were a fun group to spend the day with.  The Buddha was pretty magnificent, and the pandas were oh so fun to watch even though I was bummed about not holding one.

P1040442 P1040406


–One of my friends at Hope, Yijun, is from Chengdu.  I got to meet her parents and they treated us to a delicious dinner with true Chinese hospitality!  It felt like being at home with family, they were so kind!  It was a very unique experience that I wasn’t expecting to have, but it might even have been why I came to Chengdu.  I’m so thankful that everything worked out.

–Wandering random shopping streets with no goal or time frame in mind.  Sichuan is known for SPICE.  The one spicy dish I ate I also managed to get in my eye.  Needless to say, I’m still a spice wimp.



–Something that I LOVED about Chengdu was how many green trees there were (Beijing basically has none right now).  We also checked out a monastery that had some beautiful gardens away from the city.  It was interesting to observe some Buddhist religious practices and I definitely want to learn more about Buddhism as it is a belief system that has greatly influenced Chinese culture.


–On Sunday, Marytha and I were going to go to a nearby mountain but train tickets were sold out by the time we got there.  We decided to explore some parks in Chengdu and had an absolutely awesome day!  We paddled a canoe (a midst many greetings of “Hallo!” from our fellow Chinese mariners), danced with Chinese people (including to “Gangam Style”), and rode this suspended bike ride at the part of the park that had a mini amusement park.  It was so glorious to be in such beautiful creation and to enjoy it with many Chinese people as well.  Some sort of white puffy pollen was floating in the air, like snow, which only made everything feel more like a fairy tale!  We even managed to run into Alyssa and her friend without planning to at all.

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Chengdu was an absolutely beautiful city, and I’m so glad that I made the choice to go, even though I didn’t hold a panda, train tickets were sold out, the car broke down… it was still an awesome weekend, with the best memories in the unexpected & beautiful.


And it starts with a snooze

11 Am- I wake up to the sound of alarm and react to it exactly like anyone else. I snooze it. That’s how my day starts. Everyone has their daily routines for their day and I have realized how they have differed from what I do back in Hope College.

11:30 Am- By the time I snooze and get ready to go to the bathroom I need to be make sure that I don’t interfere with any of my flat-mates’ daily schedule either. Germans are very punctual and I always feel bad if my slacking affects them.

11:59 Am- My tram always get by at 12:01 and if I want to make it to class after having lunch, I need to be at the stop by this time. This has drastically changed how I would sleep in for 10, 15, and 20 more minutes, put on cloths, get to class and have lunch “later on” in the Kletz. Being dependent on something else apart from my own body to get me to class in time makes has made me feel dependent on the public transportation. (Don’t take it the wrong way; I love the public transportation here.)

12:15 Pm- The Mensa. By this time I am at the student canteen ready to have some food. The Mensa reminds me a lot of Phelps. By that I mean, everyone complains about the food but in the end you know that it is healthy and efficient.

Till 1:30 PM I have some free time when I am able to do some leftover homework and just talk to the people in my program. Unlike Hope College where my classes and bedroom were less than 15 minutes apart, every time I got to class, I only intend on returning back home after my classes are done. Due to this, I haven’t had naps between classes in Germany yet.

6:00 Pm- The feeling of being done with classes for the day is the same in Germany and in the United States.

In America most people have dinner early due to which all the dining services are shut down super early. I have been used to eating late in Nepal and needing to cook has allowed me to have a flexible schedule not based on when I should eat. Even though the start of a weekday is very scheduled, it is up to me to make use of my time when I am not in classes. I have done a good job so far and always feel like I have a productive day. Today, it was a very lazy Sunday, and I felt that I accomplished something just because I did my laundry.