French Soccer, Versailles, and the Louvre!

With the World Cup kicking off this weekend, my study abroad friends and I bought tickets to the World Cup send-off game of France vs. Ireland at the Stade de France. As an avid soccer fan, I was super excited to see one of my favorite national teams (France, of course!) take on Ireland. European soccer games are an exciting experience in itself. Fans were singing soccer fight songs throughout the metro rides, and the crowd at the game was even more rowdy. The French fans sang the national fight song throughout the entire game, successfully drowning out the attempts of the Irish fans trying to sing. My favorite part of the night was that we took a baguette into the game and used it to cheer with (yes, you read that correctly).  France defeated Ireland 2-0, and closed with a small World Cup send-off ceremony. We did get caught in a massive flash-flood on the way out of the game, which now we look back on and laugh about; mainly due to the fact that I ran barefoot because I love my Birkenstocks too much to see them get ruined!

***Bonus points if you can spot the baguette in this photo

Later in the week for marketing class, our IES program took us to the Palace of Versailles. The palace itself is massive and covered in extravagant gold. The inside houses hundreds of famous artworks, and of course the famous Hall of Mirrors. After touring the palace, we explored the backyard gardens. The gardens cover over one mile, including sculptures, fountains, and a hedge maze. At the back of the hedge maze, I found a small café hidden in the garden. This was one of my favorite places to eat, as it was very serene and peaceful.


On the weekend, I decided to take on the true challenge of Paris: tackling the Louvre. The Louvre has over 35,000 pieces of art and several floors. I started very early in the morning and followed a plan to see the artworks I was most excited about. My favorites included the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and the Egypt exhibits. I explored the Louvre from opening to closing time, and saw everything I planned and more! I absolutely loved the Louvre, as there were so many timeless pieces of art history.


A few hours in, I found my absolute favorite piece of art. I stumbled across it on accident, and fell in love with the intricate detail. I also thought it was funny that this painting is actually a painting of other famous paintings. The piece is called Gallery Views of Modern Rome by Giovanni Paolo Panini (attached below). The room this painting hangs in was completely empty, so I was able to enjoy the art peacefully which is rare in the Louvre.

After hours exploring the Louvre, I ate at Café Marley which overlooks the Louvre courtyard. The Louvre is a massive museum, but definitely one of my favorite places in Paris. I hope to come back to see even more art at the Louvre!

Au Revior!

-Alissa Smith


Latin Quarter and First Day of Classes!

Classes finally started at the IES Center! My first class is French 101 with Professor Lerouvillois. I have never taken French language before, but I find learning the language very interesting. I think the language rules are very similar to Spanish which I studied for five years, so I am learning pretty fast.  After class concluded, all of us students went down the street to a local deli.  We also put to use what we learned in class and ordered our food successfully in French! (Je voudrais un sandwich, s’il vous plaît = I would like a sandwich, please.)

The other class I am taking here in Paris is Global Marketing with Professor DeGendre. I absolutely love this class and it is super interesting. We learned about how companies change their advertising campaigns to match the culture of a country. McDonald’s was a unique example I found interesting, as the McDonald’s here in Paris has a very fancy interior, a different menu, and also serves macaroons! I hope to have a career in international marketing, so this class is great experience!

After class and lunch, our group decided to take the metro and tour the Latin Quarter of St. Germain des Prés. The Latin Quarter is the oldest area of Paris and contains all of Paris’ old universities. It is known as the Latin Quarter because the universities used to only teach classes in Latin. We also visited the famous cathedral of Notre Dame and the royal chapel of Saint Chapelle. Notre Dame is famous for its two large towers that I plan to climb to the top of sometime, while Saint Chapelle is famous for its extensive stained glass walls. My personal favorite is Saint Chapelle (bottom photo) because the intricate details on the stained glass are amazing. No two panels are alike and the glass is hand painted.


Since the Latin Quarter is famous for being the oldest area of Paris, I of course had to eat at the oldest restaurant in Paris.  I ate at Café Procope, which was established in 1686 and is still open.  I sat outside in the back alley as I was served duck and crème brûlée.  This was definitely the best meal I have ever had (and probably one of the fanciest)!


Bon appetit!

-Alissa Smith

Drinking Problems

Costa Rica takes their coffee very seriously. Since 1989, the government has forbidden the growing of the lesser coffee, Coffea canephora (robusta). It is only legal to cultivate Coffea arabica, which is considered the superior coffee because its lower caffeine content decreases bitterness and allows for more subtle flavors. If you buy specialty coffee, you’re buying arabica!

So let’s talk about coffee. Every day, we consume over 2.25 billion cups of coffee worldwide. Such a massive market has far-reaching consequences, and we ought to consider those impacts before making purchases in order to be responsible consumers.
(I realize that this already sounds tedious and sanctimonious, so I promise that there will be a cute frog picture if you make it to the end.)

There’s a whole host of problems when it comes to the pricing and distribution of coffee. The short of it is that large coffee companies like Nestle, Kraft, Proctor&Gamble and Sara Lee end up with 90% of the profit, while 10% goes to their farmers. That small cut is not nearly enough to live on, which is why it’s important to purchase fair trade coffee that offers reasonable prices for the growers.

We’re all familiar with that cause. Buy fair trade. …But you’re not off the hook yet. What about the environmental impacts of coffee here in the tropics?

Coffee plants themselves are no great problem: these small, scrubby plants can grow in topographies that don’t suit other crops, and they’re often grown in high altitude areas where they help to reduce erosion, encourage the accumulation of leaf litter nutrients, and increase rainwater retention in the soil.

But these benefits are often overshadowed by the problems caused by large-scale farms, which prompt the next great debate: sun coffee vs. shade coffee.

Many farmers prefer sun-grown coffee for its fewer pest problems and high (short term) bean production, but this ultimately depletes soil nutrients and the large swathes of cropland fragment old-growth tropical forests.
Shade coffee, on the other hand, is grown in the forest understory, which allows some animal habitat to persist and assists natural pollinators in doing their job, both with the coffee plants and in the surrounding environment. The shade coffee plants produce fewer beans, but do so for much longer before they burn out and require labor-intensive replacement. The leaf drop from plants overhead also assists with faster nutrient turnover, creating healthier, richer soils. It unfortunately requires some extra work on the part of the farmer, and sometimes the additional application of agrochemicals as there is no harsh sun to keep the insects at bay, but it’s significantly better for our world’s vanishing tropical forests.

To drive this point home, we had the pleasure of visiting local sun- and shade- coffee farms while we’re here in Costa Rica! The sun plantation was about what you would expect; rows upon rows of bushy plants baking in the dry heat, rooted in cracked, bare soil. Let’s not dwell on it.
But the shade coffee plantation, run by our host Don Roberto, was truly fascinating. In addition to shading his crops with tree-like banana plants, he digs pits along the coffee rows to help catch dropped leaves and keep soil nutrients cycling, and grows everything in terraces to help avoid erosion and runoff. Click on the photos below to expand them and read their captions!

So, in conclusion: buy fair trade and shade grown coffee, or you’re a horrible person.
I kid, I kid. But if you enjoy a hot cup of morning drugs, perhaps consider looking into where it’s coming from. Your dollars are shaping the lives of people across the world, which is both amazing and terrifying. And if you’re already happy with your coffee buying habits, maybe read up on your favorite brands anyway. It’s an interesting business to learn about!

You made it to the end! Here’s that cute frog picture, as promised. This fella was lurking in the forest around the Las Cruces Biological Station.

P.S. If you scrolled straight to the bottom for the frog photo, you are a cheater. Our deal was that you read.
God is watching.

Studying “auf Deutsch”

A big part of studying abroad for me is that it will allow me to get a major in German, because any class in which the language of instruction is German gets counted as a German class. That’s why I chose to come to Germany instead of anywhere else in the world, and that’s why all of my classes are taught in German!

IES Freiburg (and globally) offers programs for language students and people who only know English, and the staff is completely fluent in English. When they talk to us in the Language and Area Studies program, though, they only use German, and we’re encouraged to try to use German among ourselves as well, which is why the rest of this post will be entirely auf Deutsch. Just kidding!

Admittedly, it can be hard to remain “immersed” in the language- when I’m with the other American students, it’s so easy to just slip back into English, and when I’m texting or calling with people back home, I have to only use English. That’s one of the reasons why I appreciate having a German grammar class four hours per week, doing all of my homework in German, and hearing all of my lectures in German. My notes often end up being a mixture of Deutsch and English, which is known affectionately here as Denglisch. ‘Franken-sentences” of mismatched languages abound.

An example of my Denglisch “Frankensentences”. These are from when we learned about political parties in German. The text reads (translated): Voters [for the Alternative for Germany Party] come from people who were CDU/CSU members or previously non-voters. People who are concerned that things could turn bad in the future. 20% voted for AfD because of it’s platform, the other 80% had no idea what the platform was, but rather voted as a protest against all other parties. [The idea being that] maybe the other parties will get their act together if they lose voters.”
Luckily, the professors all speak relatively good English and can help us out if we don’t understand something.

German classes in general are structured differently from American classes. There’s less homework, and instead our grades are based primarily on 1 presentation, 1 research paper, a midterm exam, and a final exam. The concept of “multiple choice” tests hasn’t made it across the pond, and Germans seem skeptical and bemused by the idea. All exams are short-essay style. Thankfully, we’re allowed to use translation dictionaries to help us during exams, and the professors don’t dock points if we have to use the occasional English word.

My classes here are my language & culture class, German economics, German 21st century politics, and the history of the German state. It’s very interesting to get the European and German perspective on things that I’ve only ever heard from the American perspective. One would think that something like economics would be universal, but one would be wrong- the German have developed what they call “Ordo-Liberalism”, whereas Americans focus mostly on classical & neo-liberalism and Keynesian economics. I’ve also come to understand the roots of the first and second World Wars better than I ever have before, because Germans are much more concerned with questions like “why was Germany assigned all of the blame for WWI? Why did the Wiemar Republic fail so quickly?” The German perspective is helping me to see and understand the world more clearly, which is one of the biggest advantages of studying abroad.

This is the main building of the Freiburg University, which was founded in 1457!

While all of my classes are through IES, I could have chosen to participate in a course at the Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg (Uni-Freiburg for short) or at the Pädagogische Hochschule (PH). Many of the other students are doing one class at the university and the rest through IES. The university classes end a month later than the IES classes, which means that people taking university classes get to stay in Germany a month longer. Since I’m doing an internship, though, I get to stay late regardless, so I didn’t feel the need to take a university class (and it was a bit intimidating!)

This modern building is the University Library. You can see how many bikes are locked out front- a testament to Freiburg’s bike culture.

The library is also a different experience. Before going in to where the books are, you have to lock all of your bags and coats in lockers. Anything that you want to bring in has to be carried in a shopping bag, and you can only bring water in clear containers. It’s much stricter than Van Wylen! On the ground floor is also a cafe in case you get hungry while studying, and you can reserve your study space using a little placard that displays what time you left. If you’ve been gone for more than an hour, though, people are free to take over your spot.

Students in Germany also tend to be older than American students. Many of the German students whom I’ve met are in their late 20s or early 30s. There’s not so much the “traditional” student who goes to college for a neat and tidy four years right after high school. It seems to be fairly common to wait a few years before entering the university, and also the idea of a very rigid 4-year plan isn’t as common here.


Mandatory Fun

I have long excelled at doing nothing. One of my favorite childhood pastimes was sitting on a riverside rock for hours upon end, whiling away the summer just watching the fish, frogs, and water voles cavort in the current.

Then adulthood came and I was expected to actually do things with my time, so that childhood habit fell by the wayside.
…Or at least, it did for a few years. Now it’s assigned for class.

As part of our homework for the Fundamentals of Tropical Biology class, we students need to wade into the underbrush, have a seat for an hour, and catalogue everything we see, smell, and hear in that area. The exercise trains us to quickly notice the most important aspects of a local habitat and often prompts questions about the ecological interactions we perceive. That latter part reveals the other purpose of this exercise; it provides a sort of brainstorming process for the independent ecological research projects that will be our magnum opera of this semester.

A page of my trusty Rite in the Rain notebook! Please don’t judge my handwriting too harshly.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed completing these exercises in every major biome we visit, but our current location has provided the most interesting wilderness for exploration. We’re now staying at La Selva (“The Jungle”) Biological Station in northeast Costa Rica. There are nearly 4,000 acres of tropical rainforest held by this station, and there’s no lack of activity as the rainy season is just beginning to start in earnest. Life is everywhere you look!

For starters, these little guys—about the size of my last pinky joint—are perpetually underfoot! This is the aptly-named strawberry dart frog.

If you’ll allow me to really get nerdy for a second: their scientific name is Oophaga pumilio, which is Latin for “dwarf egg eater” (pūmilio, oon, phagos). They won this moniker because the female carts the tadpoles up into the trees soon after hatching so that they can develop in the isolated, safe puddles of rainwater trapped by bromeliads and other tree-dwelling plants.1
The devoted strawberry dart frog mother then cares for her growing children by periodically stopping by these puddles and laying unfertilized eggs for them to eat. If she leaves them alone for too long, they’ll start splashing at the puddles’ surface to communicate their desire to feed on the proteins of their unfathered siblings.

Neat, huh?

I realize that the saga of Oophaga might not be appealing to everyone, so let’s move right along and check out this glasswing butterfly. Butterflies and moths have tiny scales on their wings which give them pattern and color, which you might have already found out if you ever tried touching one and a fine colorful dust rubbed off on your fingers. But the glasswing butterflies are special; their wing scales are modified into translucent hairs, so you can see straight through the wing frame! Their Spanish name is espejitos, or “little mirrors,” which is just plain adorable.

There are all sorts of amphibious critters to be found in the forest. This tree frog is cozied up with some thick epiphyll cover—that mossy growth on the leaf surface. He’s a nocturnal species, and is more than a little grumpy at being woken. I feel a special kinship.

This is the biggest damselfly I’ve ever seen, with an abdomen about four inches long. I think it’s Megaloprepus caerulatus, which boasts the largest wingspan of all damselflies (and even dragonflies) worldwide! They, like the dart frogs, raise their young in arboreal puddles called phytotelmata. Unlike the dart frogs, they lay all their eggs in one puddle and let the carnivorous young naiads murder and cannibalize each other until a few satisfied winners emerge and develop to adulthood. It’s lonely at the top.

The roots of the trees here seem as old and broad as the earth, and sport so much moss that they appear to be growing small forests of their own. The biodiversity here at every level is stunning, and I’m excited to spend the last weeks of this program surrounded by so much pure life.

A uniquely popular phrase here in Costa Rica is “pura vida!” or “pure life!” It can be used as a greeting, a farewell, or a philosophy. I think I’m finally beginning to understand.

So until next time,
¡Pura vida!

Searious Business

The weather wasn’t half bad.

Another week, another sunburn. But this time it’s from the Panamanian sun, so I shall fondly cherish it as a souvenir. We have just emerged from the wilds of Bocas del Toro, a Caribbean archipelago in the northernmost province of Panama. Literally called “Mouths of the Bull,” the island chain is a maze of twisting channels and narrow coastal passages overgrown by thick mangrove stands, each darkly gaping maw standing ready to swallow thoughtless captains and their vessels.1

The half-submerged mangrove forests here in Bocas have a special ecological purpose in addition to the usual services they provide as coastal wind breaks and flood barriers; they provide extra habitat and feeding grounds for the multitudes of fish that populate the coral reefs here in Bocas.

The mangrove passages were like something out of a fairytale, if fairytales featured more mud.

As beautiful as the mangroves are, those coral reefs take the spotlight this week. We came to Bocas to snorkel around the reefs near Isla Colón and investigate how damselfish territoriality impact the grazing habits of other marine herbivores.

What does any of that mean? I’m glad you asked, my fictional mental construct of a reader!

Damselfish stand in the shadow of their more famous family members, the clownfish. They have many similar physical characteristics despite lacking that distinct orange-and-white coloration, which is why taxonomists decided to lump them all into the same family, Pomacentridae.
What makes them interesting is that they’re mean. Damselfish aren’t content to just mosey along and graze on the algae growing in and around the coral, but instead stake out small territories along the reef bed. Once one names itself the ruler of a particular area, it patrols the outskirts of its little 1x1m² kingdom and chases away intruders who try to graze on its coral.

Among other things, we wanted to see if a particular species of damselfish, Stegastes planifrons, discriminated and chased away more herbivorous fish than the carnivorous, predatory types of fish. So we educated ourselves on fish identification, found several threespot damselfish up and down the coast, and got to work snorkeling around and taking notes underwater with mechanical pencils on our trusty PVC pipe wrist cuffs.

The results? The poor herbivores got the brunt of all damselfish attacks. It seems our little S. planifrons are quite adept at discerning which species are most likely to thieve their food source.

We also measured the amount of herbivory (devoured greenery) in and around damselfish territories over time, and found that damselfish are awfully good at defending what’s theirs—algae flourished in their territory, but outside of their territory algae was rapidly eaten away to nothing. So these adorable little fish tyrants ultimately encourage marine algae diversity, as their pieces of land are refuges in areas where algae are otherwise overgrazed. It seems that a little apparent greediness can be beneficial to the community as a whole!

Certainly interesting for marine algal life, but perhaps it’s best not to take that Aesop too much to heart.

This is the edge of the reef, just beyond the crest in the ocean floor that catches the bulk of the currents and provides a stable “reef flat” where coral can grow undisturbed. You can see the dark shapes of young coral growth beneath the surface. Also, because now I’m rambling about coral: they’re clones! Each rock-like growth is actually a clonal group of marine invertebrates which excrete colorful calcium carbonate exoskeletons. It’s easy to think of these guys as mere background to marine animal life, but they’re animals in their own right—just not as graceful as their more mobile jellyfish cousins.

I wish that I had more photos to share, but my phone was ill equipped for submarine adventures. I’ll try to make it up in the next post!

Ciao for now!

Interning Abroad

During my semester in Freiburg, I have the chance to do an internship. The IES staff helped me to write up a German resume and send it to local businesses and organizations that fit my interests. I’m not being paid, because I’m getting credit instead. However, with my student visa, I’m also allowed to work for a wage here, so I could also get a second job at any local business (Disclaimer: student visas work differently from country to country. In many cases, you cannot work while on a student visa). I know some students who wait tables at local restaurants, for example. Other IES students are interning at a local school (education major), an economics company (economics major), and a community farm (environmental studies major). For one hour each week, every student doing an internship meets together for a class at IES, during which we talk about our experiences at our internships, learn about the German workplace, and will eventually write a reflection paper about our internship.

I’ll admit, it sounds more impressive than it really is — because of the language issues, it’s actually rather limited what I can do. Some students from IES were raised speaking German at home by German parents, so they’re completely fluent, and they have more “professional” internships. Mine is more like being a regular volunteer, but that’s fine by me — it’s still a great way to practice German, meet people, and get involved in the local community.

My internship is with a woman’s shelter called “FreiRaum”, which means “freedom”. This shelter is a ministry of the Lutheran organization Diakonie. Right now I’m going once per week from 8:30am to noon, because I have classes every other day. At the end of July, however, IES courses end, and I’ll have another month with no class. At this point, I’ll start going to “work” 3-4 days during the week, and have free time to enjoy the German summer otherwise.

At FreiRaum, women can come and do laundry, shower, receive a meal, get public transportation passes, and collect mail. We also do arts and crafts, and just hang out with the ladies. The week before Easter we made painted Easter eggs, which I had never done before. We used thumb tacks to poke a hole in the top and bottom of the raw eggs, then put our mouths over one end and blew the insides into a bowl. Once we’d emptied a whole carton of eggs, I scrambled the insides and we served them. Once our Easter eggs were decorated and the paint was dry, they were hung all over the main room, off of plants and on the walls.

Click on the thumbnails below to see the full sized photos!

The center is only open from 9am to noon, so we serve a German breakfast. This means bread, cheese, salami, raw bacon, jam, honey, Nutella, butter, coffee, and tea. One of my duties is preparing the food and making sure it stays stocked throughout the morning.

Every morning, I and another intern walk down to the grocery store to buy supplies. We buy huge quantities of groceries to last the shelter for the week, then prepare some to be served when the women arrive. We also need to sort the mail that’s arrived for the women. Every letter needs to be recorded and safely filed for the recipient to come pick up, and then they have to sign that they got it. It’s a fairly serious business, but that makes sense given how important and private mail can be.

I also spend a lot of time talking with the other employees and the women who come to the center. I’ve gotten to know several of the “regulars” who are there when I am, and they’re all very friendly. These are the kinds of women who most people, including myself, usually ignore when they’re begging on the streets or riding on public transportation with all of their belongings and bedding, but at this internship I sit side-by-side at the same table as equals.