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…

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

My Last Week in Paris!

Finals week finally arrived for all of us at IES Paris! While I feel like I’ve only been in Paris for one day, it’s been seven weeks of unforgettable experiences. Since our finals happened to be on the Fourth of July, the staff at IES Paris decorated the IES center with American flags and streamers. Our professors and staff have been incredible to work with, and we’ve all become extremely close. It’s hard to turn in our last final, but we’ve all learned so much and made great internship connections.

After we crammed for finals and turned in our exams, IES took everyone out to a fancy farewell lunch at a restaurant called Deuz. We were served fried eggplant rolls filled with goat cheese (sounds weird, but I promise it’s actually the best appetizer I’ve had), and some of the best duck in Paris with everyone at IES Paris. We were sad to say goodbye and we all hope to come back to Paris to visit everyone!

Even though it was the last week, we still had some exploring left to do. We visited the Paris Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful and intricately decorated buildings in Paris. The bright blue tile floors were gorgeous in the sunlight, and the mint tea served there changed my life. Tea will never be the same. The gardens were beautiful, and since the Mosque is a hidden gem of Paris, we were able to enjoy the gardens in peace with no tourists.


A few of my friends from Avondale (my high school in Michigan) happened to be in Paris while on their trip through Europe during my last week. I was super excited to meet up with them! I took them to my favorite crêpe place, La Crêperie de Josselin for lunch. We had a blast catching up and exchanging travel stories, all while enjoying some of the tastiest crêpes in Paris! (Shout out to the IES Paris staff for introducing me to this crêperie!)

Shortly after, I explored the city visiting some of the places I still needed to cross off my list. One of these places was the famous Love Lock Bridge. This bridge is an icon of Paris, but unfortunately Paris removes the locks each month to keep the bridge from collapsing. Although, I was not disappointed, as there were hundreds of locks on the bridge. I hope to come back one day and put a lock on the bridge, as this ranks pretty high on my bucket list!

For my last night in Paris, I decided to do something special for myself. I bought a ticket to the top of Montparnasse Tower, which is the tallest building in Paris. I stayed for the sunset and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. The view was breathtaking and I could see for miles beyond Paris. I enjoyed some fantastic chocolate mousse while watching the sunset from the skydeck, because when in Paris, why not?! It was a great way to close my summer semester in Paris and the view of the city is something I will never forget.

Au revoir, Paris!

-Alissa Smith

Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg!

For a weekend trip, I decided to take the train from Paris into Brussels and Luxembourg City. Immediately entering the Grand Place city square of Brussels, I was greeted with intense smells of chocolate. I bought authentic Belgian chocolate from Mary’s, who are the chocolate suppliers of the Belgian royal family, and it was 100% the best chocolate I have ever tasted! I also had Belgian street waffles, which were piled high with tons of toppings. Later on, I stopped for frites (fries), and there is a huge feud between France and Belgium over where frites originated. I personally think Belgium had the better tasting frites!

Brussels is the most famous for the Manneken Pis statue, which occasionally gets dressed up in costumes for special events. I was lucky enough to be in Brussels on a national holiday dedicated to Manneken Pis, so I was able to watch a parade dedicated to the statue and see Manneken Pis in two different outfits!

After Brussels, I headed to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg for another day trip. Luxembourg City is full of history and castles. I toured the Bock Casemates, which is a fortress carved into the Luxembourg cliffs dating back to 963. This was one of the most interesting places I have seen in Europe. The fortress is entirely carved into caves and tunnels throughout the cliff side. The cave system is so large that I walked through for hours and did not see any other people. Bock Casemates border the city of Luxembourg, and it was beautiful to look out over the entire city from the fortress.




After touring Bock Casemates, I followed a hiking trail along the cliffs and forest of the city. The trail leads to a point called Chemin de la Corniche, also known as “the most beautiful balcony in Europe”. I can definitely agree that this view is the most beautiful balcony in Europe, as I have never seen anything like it! Luxembourg was my favorite country I visited in Europe, and I hope to visit again soon!


-Alissa Smith



The Mother City

I arrived safely in Cape Town a week ago for my fall semester at University of Cape Town and began what I hope will be the adventure of a lifetime! When I landed, I met my study abroad program director at the airport to drive to where I’ll be staying for the semester: a small 7-person house in a little enclosed garden. The house seems like it will make for good community throughout the semester, but I just have to get used to using a space heater to warm up my room since its winter here and uncommon to have central heating. The winters in Cape Town get cool, around 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit and are very rainy, but the rain is much needed here because of the drought Cape Town is going through. The water reserves were recently reaching 14% of their capacity, but since the winter rains it is now above 50%, which will last the area until 2019 at least. Even though the water levels have risen, Cape Town is still considered to be in a drought. We are under water restrictions and have to try our best to limit our water usage. That means short showers, recycling shower water to flush toilets, not leaving the faucets running while washing dishes or brushing teeth, etc. It will definitely take some getting used to!

Upper Campus at University of Cape Town, where I will be studying!

My first week here consisted of full days of IES orientation, where IES staff members went over Cape Town culture, history, safety, and academics. The orientation was mostly made up of lectures, but we were able to do some fun things afterwards. On Wednesday a few people from a nearby township called Langa came to take us on a tour in order for us to experience Cape Town as a whole instead of just becoming familiar with the city. Townships are similar to neighborhoods surrounding the city and each one is unique, so the members of the communities have a lot of pride in their township. Langa is a Xhosa township, which is one of cultural groups and one of the 11 national languages of South Africa. Langa is made up of black lower and middle class South Africans. During orientation we learned that in South Africa 54% of the population is under the poverty line and only 13 percent of the total population make enough money to be eligible tax payers. These were significant and surprising statistics to learn. We were able to see some poverty  first hand in Langa since the majority of the people are also under the poverty line.

Mike, our tour guide, was born and raised in Langa and still lives there today. Because it is a such a strong community in this township, he said that few people tend to leave even if they have enough money to move to a wealthier township. It was also evident that there was strong community based on the amount of people that were outside together and the number of children playing in the streets with each other. Our first stop on the tour was the arts building, where there are a few different art programs. One of the programs is called Our City – Cape Town. This program is made up of various local artists who sell their work and put the profits towards funding for local youth to come after school and learn how to make artwork. It is a way for the young people in the township to learn a new skill and have something to do after classes. It seemed like a really good opportunity for the children because from what we saw in the township, they  didn’t have toys to play with or access to the types of crafts or activities I grew up with. They were smiling and laughing and having fun but were playing with car tires and old storage crates. It was reassuring seeing how their community was providing them with opportunities like this art program since they are unable to have their own toys and other things many of us take for granted.

Some of the artwork created by local Langa artists being sold for the Our City – Cape Town program.
A mosaic wall outside of the Langa art building.

The next stop was with street vendors cooking and selling sheep heads. In Langa sheep are a common and popular food, but they eat every part of the sheep, including the organs and the head. So, we were able to see how Langa women cook the sheep head and even got to try a bite! The idea of eating the face of a sheep was a lot worse than the taste. It wasn’t bad but that could’ve been because I put a lot of salt on it. It is also tradition for boys to go through a rite of passage to transition to manhood, in which a sheep is sacrificed. So sheep are a big part of the cuisine and religious tradition.

A street vendor cooking a sheep head over the fire.
The sheep head I got to taste a bite of!

In Langa there is also a variety of living situations based on socioeconomic status. The middle class members live in full houses collected in one section of the township. The lower class community members live in hostels. Mike brought us to see a couple different hostels on our tour. There are older hostels where up to 6 people live in a room about 12’ x 10’ and they share a common space and bathrooms with 5 other rooms. This means that at times there can be 36 people sharing the same kitchen and bathroom. These living conditions were hard to see and experience because they wouldn’t be ideal for anyone. The room we went into was where a 16-year-old girl lived with her family; it was hard to imagine what it would be like to have to do all of my homework and apply for college in a tiny room filled with my family. It put into perspective what living conditions I grew up with and am used to compared to and how I complain about my dorm room being small when I only share it with one person, not five others. The government knows that these living conditions need to be improved, so they have started renovating the hostels. The newer ones are much nicer. They still have one bedroom with up to 6 people, but there is only one room sharing a common area, which is much more homey and comfortable. It was nice seeing that improvements are being made, but it is not happening at the rate that it needs to be.

Rows of older hostels in Langa.

After seeing the township and experiencing a little bit of their daily life, we went to a restaurant in the township, Mzamzi, and got to taste traditional Xhosa food and listen to an African band during dinner. The woman who runs the restaurant and cooked our meal came out to Welcome us to Langa and told us the story about how the restaurant came to be. She told us that she wanted people to be able to experience a different part of Cape Town and see that townships are not all dangerous but have a rich culture in themselves. Her restaurant is ranked number one in Cape Town on Trip Advisor which is an incredible accomplishment for her and her community. The food was delicious and included traditional foods such as samp and beans, beef stew, umngqusho (dried maize and bean mélange) and my favorite part, malva pudding for dessert. After eating, her husband came out and got us dancing to the African band and we even got to play the instruments for the last song. It was a very fun way to end the night, seeing how excited the people of this community were to share their culture with us!

The African band playing at Mzamzi while we were eating. We got a chance to play some of the instruments pictured!

Experiencing Langa was eye-opening, allowing me to gain a better understanding of what life is like for many South Africans. Some of my peers at UCT will have come from townships such as this, and I hope I will be able to learn more about life in townships through talking with peers and experiencing more of them throughout my time here. There is so much culture here in Cape Town and so much depth to each aspect of it, I can’t wait to discover more!

Coming Full Circle

This isn’t actually my first “exchange” to Europe — in 2012, at the age of 15, I was fortunate enough to be able to go on a two week tour of Europe with a youth orchestra. We stayed with host families in the communities we visited and traveled through Germany and France. It was an amazing experience that I still look back on with great fondness. In fact, it made such an impact on me that I considered trying to study abroad in one of the German cities that I had visited as a freshman in high school.

As a 15 year old, I was very excited about the massive jars of Nutella one could get in Europe!

So naturally, I reached out to the organization — Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp — to see if any of the five or so youth ensembles would be coming to Freiburg this summer.

As it turned out, the Blue Lake International Youth Choir would be performing in Badenweiler, which is a village about 23 miles south of Freiburg. Unfortunately, there was no direct way for me to get there. I was determined, though, and so yesterday evening I embarked on a 2 hour journey to Badenweiler.

A poster for the concert!

It was really sweet because the conductor (actually the choir director from Albion College) was doing his concert “speech” in German for the first time and would occasionally ask the audience for grammar or vocab help, and the audience was happy to oblige him. In fact, I and everyone else seemed to be really enjoying the performance: they were getting really excited about the Gospel songs the choir was singing, and were clapping along during the song and whistling and whooping at the end. The music was all characteristically American, with selections from Gospel, folk hymns, and Broadway- including Hamilton! These are the songs and music styles that I grew up hearing and that remind me of our history, and they just don’t exist in the same way in Germany. I missed them a lot this semester!

Unfortunately, I ended up having to leave before the concert ended, because I had to walk another hour back to the train station to catch the evening train home! Had I missed it, I would’ve had to wait at least an hour for the next train, and I didn’t want to do that. It was really cool that I was able to cross paths with this little piece of my past in the countryside of Germany. I’m going home in about three weeks — what a perfect time for a little shot of nostalgia and home!