Coming Home?

To fully understand where you are going, I think you have to understand where you are coming from. Study abroad for many of my peers is a new and exciting experience unlike anything they have ever done before. For me? Not so much. See, I lived in Prague, Czech Republic, from when I was 8 until I was 16. Coming to Freiburg for the semester is not necessarily diving into the unknown for me. I went swimming a while ago and I’ve just been drying off for a while, anxiously preparing for the next jump and anticipating whether it will still feel the same.

The first few days were a blur. Between jet lag, meeting the 74 other students in the program, and finally moving into our apartments, it was a whirlwind. As part of the European Union Program here in Freiburg, we focus heavily on the European political scene. Our first class two days ago was our Integrative Seminar, which will primarily be a study of how the EU functions, how it is structured, and what purposes it serves. Actually, the only classes we take until the first of our three week long trips throughout Europe are this Seminar and two hours of German each day.

Downtown Freiburg

The city itself is wonderful. Though it has mostly rained on us so far, Freiburg is just big enough to be a lively city and just small enough to learn how to get around quickly. If you come to Freiburg expecting stereotypical German culture, you may be surprised. Though everything is still very pünktlich (punctual), this southern German town is very easy-going, eco-friendly, and quite welcoming.

Along the lines of experiencing this new culture, I had my first dinner with my new housemates. There is something about sitting around a table for an hour engaged (or at least trying to be engaged) in conversation that truly makes living abroad finally seem real. Because I am only living with German students who attend the local university here, I am looking forward to interacting with the people I will be living with not only to experience the lifestyle of Freiburg, but also to hear and speak as much German as possible. So far, I have been able to get recommendations on where to go for runs and which bakery is the best bakery in the area. Accomplishing simple things like these are essential to the experience from what I have seen, because they give you confidence and comfort moving forward.

After the craziness of the first week, we got our first chance to get out into the countryside today. A short train ride followed by a brief bus trip left us in the small town of Sankt Peter, where we had the opportunity to explore the Abbey of Saint Peter.

Abbey of St. Peter
This church was built in the baroque style which was much more colorful and bright than most cathedrals you will find in Europe.
The beautifully painted ceilings of the Abbey.

I could have probably spent another half hour in the Abbey, but naturally our German trip leader Karin ran a tight ship in order for us to get our hike started on time. The hike was about 3 hours long and provided us with a great opportunity to take in the rolling hills and beautiful woodlands, while also getting to get to know the other students in our program. Also on the trip was Jona (the German version of ‘Jonah’), a student studying at the University of Freiburg who basically functions as one of our RAs. He shared with us that he grew up in one of the small villages like Sankt Peter in Germany and explained how he got into american football on accident while trying to help his aunt find the right channel to watch the lottery. His goal is to teach German and coach football in America once he finishes his studies. One career path I am interested in pursuing is working for a European soccer club, so it was fascinating to see how we each have such a similar passion for each other’s culture. It is also a reminder of how connected we truly are despite growing up in completely different environments.

Cow sightings along our 8 km hike.
This area of Germany in particular heavily focuses on sustainability, and even outside the cities you will often find solar panels draped across roofs.
Our final stop was Himmelreich, which literally translates to ‘heaven kingdom.’ I certainly wasn’t going to disagree.
On the left is Schwartzwald Kuchen, or Black Forest cake, which combined nicely with hot chocolate and delicious strawberry ice cream.

Our hike finally ended in another small town, where we stopped for some traditional German Kaffee und Kuchen, or “coffee and cake,” at a building that used to be a farm, and has now been renovated into a hotel/restaurant that helps employ adults with mental disorders. I myself am not a coffee drinker, but the hot chocolate and other items pictured above were the perfect treat to finish off our hike.

I still can’t decide if this week has seemed to take forever or if it has gone by in a flash, but I am finally starting to feel somewhat settled. The initial anxiety has mostly worn off and I am ready to finally get into a rhythm this first week of classes. There is a lot to look forward to, but for now I’m off to bed…

Running with the Bulls

Last week was “El Carnaval” in Spain. Traditionally, this time was designated for the people to, well, purge themselves before Lent. Carnival doesn’t have the same religious implications as it once did, but that doesn’t stop the party. For about a week (sometimes more), people eat, drink, and are merry in celebrations all around the world! Last week I had the distinct privilege to travel to a local pueblo near Salamanca called Ciudad Rodrigo. In this small corner of Spain there is a Carnival celebration unlike any other in the world; they run the bulls. As I’ve heard, this is not a common practice to do during Carnival, in fact, this may be the only city in the world that incorporates the running of the bulls into their Carnival. Either way, being a romantic myself, and always having idealized bullfighting as it has been described in works of literature (Hemingway, etc), I had to see it for myself- to run it for myself. I wanted to stare in the face of death – of a 2,500 lb horned beast – and, with the grace of a great bullfighter of old, at the very last moment, to slip past the animal, with adrenaline potent in the blood and sweat running cold down the neck.

Let me disclaim: I did not run with the bulls. I didn’t ever really consider it. We had been told (this was NOT an IES sanctioned event) by IES and many others: “People die every year, don’t run with the bulls, these people are trained professionals, this is not a game.” They were right. But that can’t stop me from dreaming, right?

Anyways, determined not to run, I set myself up in perfect position to watch the running. The narrow streets of cobblestone were fenced in, and me, perched high on top of a section of fence that allowed me a clear double-view of a bended section of road. Then, we heard it. Three rings of the church bells. People started to clear the streets at a leisure pace. Three more rings of the bell. Then three more. It’s starting, I thought. Why are people still just walking in the streets? Just then, the town’s church bells began to holler frantically, as if signalling a foreign invader; and they were doing just that. The wild beasts were coming. The streets literally shook as a tangible electricity passed through the crowd. The streets were empty before you could blink – save for a few, seemingly fearless, young men. These men weren’t drunk, they weren’t scared, and they didn’t seem distant and preoccupied. If ever there was a group of people alive, awake, in the precise moment with which they were presented, the bull runners certainly were it. They were electrified, vigilant, intently watching the road before them, feeling the very tremors of the cobblestone under their feet. And then they came. There we were, all together in one place: six bulls running for their lives, a handful of young men running for theirs, and thousands of onlookers holding their breath. The bulls charged onward trying to harm any man who stood in their way. Their horns, impossibly sharp, thrashing past at a break neck pace. It was hard, if not downright impossible, to watch. After an intense fifteen-second swirl of adrenaline and excitement, the bulls had all passed, and the crowd audibly exhaled.

Luckily, this year, nobody was injured. I imagine that the bull-goring specialist doctors that were there were relieved to be unneeded. However, their job was far from over. These bulls would continue to run twice a day for the next several days, to and from La Plaza de los Toros. On this particular day, I followed the bulls to their destination in the plaza, a small sand arena where, for 10 euro, you can sit and watch La Corrida, the actual bullfight. I decided I had to see it. Although controversial, I will tell you that my reservations about bullfighting were mostly resolved after watching a bullfight in person. Think what you will about the event (I certainly have my own opinions on it), the absolute artistry of these small town bullfighters nearly blew me off my seat. Their grace, their style, their showmanship, all eternally referencing, in a way, a respect for that great animal. I stayed for hours watching four bullfights and La Capea (where the people are allowed in the ring with the wild bulls) and truly enjoyed every moment.

This experience was undoubtedly my favorite so far of being in Spain. The cultural value of seeing, with my own eyes, a real running of the bulls was priceless. This will be one of the memories that I recall with extreme fondness that will have characterized my time here in Spain.

 

My view from on top of the fence lining the street shortly before the bulls came running through.
La Plaza de Toros, Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain
An amateur bullfighter tests his luck
View from on top of a hill of the city. The festival includes carnival rides, games, street food, parades, music, and bulls.

 

Dressing up in costumes is… required. As you can see, we chose the “farm animal” theme, although it is much more common for “groups” of friends to dress up as the same exact thing – to better identify themselves, I’m sure. I am depicted on the bottom row dressed appropriately as a bull.

 

Sunday, Paella Day

Sundays in Spain, as they are traditionally known, are for making paella. For those of you unfamiliar with this Spanish dish, it is perhaps the most well-known and best tasting cuisine you could really ask for in Spain. It consists of a delicious mixture of seafood, rice, vegetables and sometimes (although not this time) rabbit. For those of you who have had paella, you certainly understand why it deserves a blog post of its own. This week my host mom asked me if I wanted to learn how to make this sea-food and rice wonder. I delightfully accepted. So, today, I intend to blog a step-by-step process of what I learned (for my memory’s sake as well as for you all). Although you can always find “recipes” online, my host-mom insists hers is the most authentic.

DISCLAIMER: All measurements are 100% eyeballed because according to my mom, “real cooking doesn’t have a recipe”. Let’s begin.

1.) We cut: onions, red peppers, and green peppers. Done.

2.) Heat up some olive oil in a saucepan (pictured below, the pan on the far right). Once the oil is hot, throw in all your veggies.

 

3.) The most important part of paella is the broth. This is where all the flavor comes from (there are no spices involved in paella). To make the broth you take basically all the stuff that the fish market throws away (fish bones, fish heads, skin, etc), and put it in water and boil it for 15-20 minutes (that’s what’s in the covered pot on the right). You’re welcome for forgetting to take a picture of this step.

4.) You take out the fish eye balls, bones, and guts, and, leaving the “broth”, throw them away. In the trash. My mom is depicted (above) picking the meat off the “trash items”. This step is optional. She really likes fish, I guess. Now we can get to the real cooking.

5.) Clean (slightly) some fresh mussels and put them into the broth. Boil them in the broth for 5 minutes or until they open up. Take them out, leave the broth. Set aside. Take off the side of the shell without any meat on it. Trash.

6.) Clean some fresh clams. Repeat step 5.

7.) By this time your veggies are probably ready. Take all that tasty fish/mussel/clam-broth you just made and pour it right into your veggie pan with a colander! The colander of course, to sift out the stray fish-eye here and there.

8.) Dump some rice into the mixture (about 1 cup per person) and boil it. You can’t really use basmati rice, or even long grain rice for that matter (the rice has to have no flavor to best absorb the fish flavor). Use round short-grain rice.

9.) Salt indiscriminately. I think my mom had her eyes shut for this part. Not sure. Like I said before, this is the ONLY SPICE/HERB/ANYTHING in this entire dish, and she barely put any in. Less is more, blah, blah, blah.

10.) Clean some fresh fish filet, and throw them right on top. I think you also have to say, “Ole!”, when you do it for it to be effective. (Remember, clean as little as possible in order to leave the flavor of the fish). Choose a fish you like. My mom chose her favorite (and Spain’s most popular paella fish), Monkfish. This fish is perhaps the ugliest living thing I’ve ever seen, but tasted magical.

11.) Cut up some fresh calamari, and throw it on top of this magical boiling Spanish stew. Keep a light boil going throughout this whole thing.

12.) Time for some gambas. Er, I mean, shrimp! Whole shrimp. Head, eyes, and all. My mom used krill instead, but shrimp is most common. Remember, fresh!

13.) Remember those mussels and clams? They’re already cooked, so go ahead and toss them on top of everything too. (Pictured below, you will start to notice you’re running out of room in the pot, and it becomes like playing Tetris, fitting in all the seafood!)

14.) Let the mussels and clams heat back up (face down, of course), let the rice finish its last few minutes, and remove from heat.

15.) Put the pot on the table next to a couple of lemons cut in half. Feel free to douse your rice with some lemon juice. This, so they say, is they authentic way to eat paella.

16.) (Below) Serve in giant heaps on your plate and dig in! Make sure you have a communal “trash plate”, where you can throw your shrimp tails, mussel shells, etc.

17.) A glass of white wine is MOST typical, but my host brother is 17 (sorry, man), and also my host mom forgot to pick some up, so water works fine too!

Note*** “Old style” paella typically contained saffron, a herb/spice that gave the traditional dish a yellow color. Saffron got too expensive to say the least. Buying enough saffron to make our dish today would have costed us about $50 USD. Since the flavor of saffron “really doesn’t matter or change the dish that much”, we didn’t use it today. I commented on the lack of color (I’ve seen pictures in textbooks, okay?) so my mom added some yellow food coloring at the very end just for me, so I could feel like my paella experience was more “authentic”. The things we do for our guests, I guess.

Enjoy!

How’s Spain?

Today marks the end of my third week in Salamanca, Spain. Over the course of the last three weeks, I have been in touch with many of my friends and family from home, talking, texting, or video-chatting, and each time, understandably, they all  ask the same thing: “How’s Spain?” What a question! Loaded, without a doubt. Knowing that the person who has asked me this question probably doesn’t have 12 hours to talk on the phone, one must be prepared to condense; that’s to say, you’ve got to come up with a script: “Things are good”, “I’m making friends”, “I’m having fun”, or my personal favorite, simply, “Good”. The truth is that although some things have been difficult, each day has brought innumerable surprises, joys, and most importantly, “firsts”, that could not possibly be entirely articulated in any phone call, text message, or work of art. But we have to do something, right? After all, people want to see at the very least the highlight reel.

Therefore, in order to best characterize my abroad experience so far (a truly impossible and frustrating task), it would be necessary to speak of the firsts. So, in an effort to give you all a three-week run down of “How’s Spain?”, living in a new country, with a new language, with a new family, I decided to write down some of the firsts – some of the things, no matter how big or seemingly small, that will have marked my entire stay in Spain:

 

  1. I went to Seville, Spain. A couple of friends and I took a 7 hour bus and stayed the long weekend in Seville. It was a marvelous city that I could best describe as being like Disney World – orange and palm trees every ten feet, castles filling the sky, smell of churros filling the air, thousands of people from all ethnicities crowding the cobblestone streets, and everybody speaking in English. It was a surreal town with a lot to offer.    
  2. I had my first lecture and “office hours” with a Spanish professor. I never really considered that I would be integrated into the Spanish academic institution. To my surprise, instead of being a tourist visitor in classes at the local university, I was a name, a person, a real student, sitting among a hundred local Spaniards learning about the psychology of groups.
  3. I watched my first “real football” game in a Spanish soccer bar with five spanish friends. Not only do I never watch soccer, but they don’t teach you soccer vocabulary in class, or proper soccer etiquette (of which there seems to be none). For the first time in my life, I felt like a true outsider, barely understanding a word being shouted across the table as the owner of the bar played Barcelona’s victory song over the loudspeakers for the third time.
  4. I went to a Spanish play. My mom invited me to watch her brother perform in a play. I accepted. I shocked myself at how much I enjoyed it – all three hours of it- accompanied only by two middle aged spanish women.
  5. I volunteer weekly at an Oxfam outlet (a fair-trade store). I sit there for three hours at a time selling fair-trade coffee and chocolates to passerbys and listen to (typical) Salmantino gossip of the town. It has been quite a “first” experience for me.
  6. I went to an eye doctor who didn’t speak English. Since I left my glasses at home, I had to get a new prescription (my eyes aren’t that bad, I just like to have them for class to read the board). I was so thankful for my 6th grade Spanish class as I was reciting the Spanish alphabet to the doctor, who was covering my left eye with a spoon.
  7. I visited a bull-fighting ring: La Plaza de Toros. Regardless of how you feel about this controversial sport, the history is just plain cool.

 

I think these very few “firsts” (and you can be sure I’m leaving out many) paint the most accurate depiction of my life over the last three weeks. It’s been pretty hard to tell about my “daily life” or “routine” here simply for the fact that every day has been a new adventure. There have surely been rough patches of adjustment, of cultural clashes, misunderstandings, and homesickness, but they have all been made insignificant by the beauty of each new day, filled with new and brilliant experiences that I am so privileged to unwrap.

All this being said, it can get pretty easy to adopt an egotistical perspective here. “Let me tell you all about my crazy awesome life, oh and by the way, your life has been probably on pause since I left home, right?” Well, to those of you who feel like us “abroaders” are ignorant to the challenges and joys of your daily life at home in the U.S., I apologize on our behalf. Truly. Although I want to continue to talk, text, and video-chat about my new and exciting adventures- my firsts – with people back home, I also want to hear about yours; because the truth is that life doesn’t stop just because we’re not there. I have learned over the past few weeks that it is just as hard to describe my experiences here as it is for my friends and family to tell me about their experiences at home – and thus is the abroad experience – people trying desperately, and often failing, to share with one another. I hope that with these small lines, I have shared something of my experience – and I await to hear of yours.

Best,

 

A Birthday In Spain

It all seemed so far off for so long – so distant – until that morning drive to the airport. I said goodbye to my dog, Charlie, to my sister, Caroline, and got in the car with my mother. She seemed to be a little distant, unable to acknowledge the ever-looming truth before us: her son was about to jump into the unknown. Upon arrival at the airport, I wasn’t quite sure if I was sleeping, dreaming, or painfully awake. All I know is that in one brief moment my mom had gone and I had come to realize two things: 1) I had no idea how to check a bag at the airport, and 2) I was on my way to Spain.

Thirteen hours of painstaking, sleepless travel later, and I was at an airport in Madrid. I was waiting for that moment that people always talk about; even as I was killing time in the airport, I was waiting for it. I was anticipating the panic, the “oh, this is really happening,” the attack of reason. After retrieving my lost luggage and drinking my first coffee ordered in Spanish, I sat in a chair waiting for the panic that never came; “they”, whoever they were, lied. There was no definitive moment of panicked dizziness, there was no regret, there was no “turn this plane around”. In fact, all of the feelings that I had anticipated for so long remained in deep sleep. I had surely felt them all, each and every spectrum of emotion, in the last few months, weeks, and days, but there in that moment, I was okay. My fear turned into a sure-footedness, and my anxiety turned into a flustered excitement (not unlike a feeling you might have right before a heart attack on a roller coaster). These feelings weren’t bad; I welcomed them. Despite what I had been telling my friends and family for months, I was finally truly excited to be in my position – to be sitting in a Madrid airport waiting to be bussed off to a new city, with a new language, with a new group of people, with a new family. I had finally arrived.

I have been in Salamanca for five days now. All the anxiety, the stress, the worry, all of the planning, has led to this: a moment of contentedness. In an almost poetic sort of way, I write this not to immediately share pictures of what my town looks like, not to tell you how much a beer costs, or how old the buildings are, but rather, I write as a confession. I write that I was wrong. I write because I never would have imagined that I would be sitting in a Spanish apartment, on my 21st birthday, excited to go out with friends that I made five days ago (who already want to buy me one). I never would have imagined an ever-changing and constantly new experience as being so outright exciting – not terrifying. Already I have experienced so much, dropped my jaw so many times, and awed at so many things, but nothing compares to the feeling that everything is okay, that I’m not dead, I’m not lost without hope, and actually, I’m really looking forward to being here.

Pictured above is Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor, the most beautiful in Europe! This photo and more, although taken with my personal device, is available in a simple web search of “Salamanca”. Although my personal review of things here will surely come, today is not that day. And believe me, it’s a gorgeous city steeped in culture, history, and great food. However, the truth remains: all that and more you can find out on your own from photographers and travelers far better and more experienced than me. Today, I wanted to simply share that I am alive, I am well, and I am 21 in Salamanca, Spain.

Salud,

This Time for Africa

Life of a Biochemical Engineering Major involves late night study sessions, long lab reports, and an endless swamp of assignments.  I love the challenge every semester brings but this time I will be embarking on a different kind of academic adventure; one that’s even more life-changing.

I’m trading in my thick text books for biographies of Nelson Mandela and Trevor Noah; my parka coat to protect against the icy Michigan tundra with short’s and T-shirts; my comfortable college environment with a university ten times as large.  This will be a new kind of learning and I plan to make the most of it.

About two weeks ago I arrived in the “motherland” the glorious Cape Town, South Africa to attend classes at the local college, the University of Cape Town.  Rather than meandering through  Hope’s  grove to the science center, I had to trek up the stunning mountain (Devil’s Peak) for my first day of class.
 

Already two days into the semester, I have come to discover three major takeaways as a visitor to this new land.  First that this diverse nation is home to 11 national languages.  It was quite fascinating to hear Afrikaans and Xhosa at a local grocery store; Xhosa being a language that employs multiple clicking noises and Afrikaans an evolution of the Dutch language arising from Dutch settler’s migration in the seventeenth century.  Although I heard an array of communication methods I was still able to use English when getting my groceries.  It’s amazing to think that almost every person in the country can speak at least two languages when sometimes I can have trouble with one (specifically grammar and various geographic colloquiums).

I also recognized that society has been largely impacted by the implementation of apartheid (which ended only 23 years ago);  that was the legal segregation of the black, colored, and white populations.  Immediately after stepping off the long twenty hour plane ride I was greeted into Cape Town with an inside look to the less westernized settlements of South Africa; the townships.  During apartheid people of colored or black race were forcefully removed to these township outskirts.  With a 35% unemployment rate many families have chosen to remain in these areas due to not being able to afford to leave their pre-liberation homes.

   

But even with blatant poverty as a staple in Cape Town society, somehow the city maintains a majestic energy,  I realized that this atmosphere  stems from the beauty of the land, citizens hope for the future, and the wide embrace of many cultures.    I feel like I have already learned so much and I can’t wait to see what the future will bring; for this time my semester is “for (South) Africa”.

  

 

Nagoya Scenery

Hello, all!

Guess what?! I saw Mt. Fuji!

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….Well, a model version of Mt. Fuji. On a high rise observatory machine. But still cool!

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I’ll back up a little bit for you: I actually recently came back from a trip to Nagoya! Nagoya is a city located in Aichi Prefecture, which is southwest of Tokyo. It’s very far and very much in the countryside, so the best way to get there is by Shinkansen, which is the rapid bullet train. By Shinkansen, it takes about 2 hours.

naggo

I was so fortunate to have a family to stay with while I was in Nagoya. (Actually, it was the family of my very first Japanese friend, with whom I met back in high school! What a blessing!!!) To get anywhere, you need to have a car and drive for at least 30 minutes in any direction. But, even though the commute was long, I was entertained with the beautiful scenery, accompanied by lots of information about the area from my friend’s parents and grandmother.

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It was a bit intimidating at first, because my friend’s family spoke in Nagoya dialect, which is slightly different from normal Tokyo dialect. My friend’s grandmother was the most difficult to understand, because her hurried and somewhat slurred speech made me have to force out a nervous “I have no idea what you just said” laugh once in a while. But thankfully, I was able to understand at the very least 50-60% at all times! That was a nice confidence boost! I was also really happy to hear that my friend’s grandmother was relieved she could communicate well with me.

We went to SO many places during my stay: castles, parks, and even a festival! (the park was where I rode the Mt. Fuji observatory ride)

I took so many pictures, but still felt like the scenery was just too much for me to be able to capture it all. It was almost overstimulating.

nagggg

I told my friend’s family that I was so happy to see so many mountains, as I had never been so close to them before (growing up in west Michigan means seeing only trees, fields, hills, and sand dunes). To my surprise, on my last day in Nagoya, my friend’s family took me to the Ibukiyama Driveway, which is literally a driving path that goes to the top of Ibuki Mountain! What a wonderful view that was…Talk about overstimulation.

No worries, though, guys. I managed to get some good shots on my camera. 😉

I have seen many beautiful places in my lifetime, but Nagoya is by far the most beautiful place I have ever seen. It was the perfect escape after living in the city of Tokyo for the past few months. I am so incredibly grateful!

2 main things to take away from this:

  1. Even when it’s hard to understand someone in a different language, they will deeply appreciate it when you show how hard you’re trying. It’s much better to struggle through a sentence for 5 minutes than to stay silent, because at least your conversation partner can tell that you really want to share your thoughts with them!
  2. If you find yourself studying abroad in the city, make sure you get the chance to take a mini vacation to the countryside if you can. Your body and mind will feel so refreshed!

Until next time 🙂

Starting off Right

Hi again!
Life in Japan post number TWO. Here we go!

As I mentioned in my previous post, my first few days in Japan were wonderful. Let me go into further detail about that here!

I arrived in Japan on March 25th in the late afternoon. My flight was 13 hours long and I had to wait in Narita Airport for almost an hour because my paperwork was just slightly off, so I was frazzled, tired, and in need of a shower. So, needless to say, I was very comforted by the fact that I had a family to stay with for the next 5 nights.

Now, the family that I stayed with was not an official host family, because my program offers a dorm housing during the semester, but since I came to Japan a few days before the program started, I needed somewhere to stay, so one of my friends at Hope College graciously offered for me to stay with her family!

On top of my first-day frazzlement, I also experienced a few nerve-wracking things that would have left me a mess if I had not had my host family there with me to make things easier. (Ordering food is so hard, knowing what kind of shampoo to buy is hard…and I touched upon this a little in the last post, but traveling by yourself for the first time on the train can be scary if you don’t know what you’re doing.)

This is my host mom and I on my first night! I’m not a huge fan of taking selfies, but we had to make sure to send my mom a picture to assure her I was safe and sound 🙂

Even on my first night, I truly felt like I had been living there for a long time already. My room was very comfortable and felt like my own.

I loved these decorations because they both reminded me of home in different ways.
I loved these decorations because they both reminded me of home in different ways.

I was also treated to many kinds of vegetarian-friendly foods…

 

…took a stab at baking…

First Impressions

Yes, yes, yes, I am alive and in Japan!!!

Sorry if it seems like I’ve been M.I.A. lately! My first few days here were absolutely wonderful, and as much as I wanted to share my thoughts about the beginning of my journey, I  really wanted to just soak everything up by myself first. I didn’t have WiFi at first, either, so it was a true and complete immersion for a while.

Now that I have been in Japan for a while now and have gotten settled in, I thought it would finally be a good time to write about some first impressions and thoughts I had that you might find interesting or helpful (especially if you have never been to Japan before!). I’ll split it into categories.

Firstly, FOOOOD:

  • Not many restaurants give you napkins! You will usually get a damp towel if it’s a nice place, or more commonly, a packaged damp wipe. This is used for you to ‘clean’ your hands before eating. Sometimes restaurants will also have some paper-thin napkins available on the table, but if you are a messy eater, maybe request some extras from the waiter or just be wise with whatever towel you’ve been given.

    Underneath the towelette is an example of the paper-thin napkins you’re usually given. If you go shopping at a conbini, you’re given utensils at checkout as well!
    Underneath the towelette is an example of the paper-thin napkins you’re usually given. If you go shopping at a conbini, you’re given utensils at checkout as well!
  • Surprisingly, a lot of places offer green tea as the default drink option instead of water. And if they do have water, it’s usually in a really small glass, so you may have to ask for a few refills or just buy some water yourself later.
  • Fast food here is so different than what is considered fast food in America…A lot of it is healthier and has higher quality ingredients. Some people tend to lose weight here because of those reasons.
  • Going off of that, a disadvantage to having really good, healthy food is that it can get kind of pricey. But not to fear! If you plan your meals out right, you can eat a lot of stuff without breaking the bank!

BATHROOMS:

  • I had been warned in advance about the lack of hand-drying machines and/or paper towels, but man, they were not kidding! Always bring a handkerchief or small hand towel everywhere with you, otherwise this is your life:
  • Soap dispensers can sometimes be confusing. A lot of the ones I’ve seen have the pump on the bottom, so the soap goes directly on your hands as you push up. I felt really dumb the first time I encountered one.

    See that tiny little spout thing under the yellow bubble?! Yeah, that’s where the soap is.
    See that tiny little spout thing under the yellow bubble?! Yeah, that’s where the soap is.

TRAINS:

  • BAAAHHHH, OH MY GOODNESS, SO CONFUSING.
    If you ever need a humbling experience, try navigating a train map all by yourself for the first time.
    If you ever need a humbling experience, try navigating a train map all by yourself for the first time.

    -–At least, for me, because I have never encountered public transportation system of this magnitude before. In reality, the system is not meant to be confusing at all and is quite organized, but does take some time to figure out where you’re going (and how) after looking at a million maps and signs multiple times.

  • Once you learn the system, you realize how freaking efficient everything is. My first time traveling by myself by train, I somehow managed to get to my destination early ON ACCIDENT. Each train is planned out down to the minute, so you can know exactly when you’ll arrive. I must have taken an earlier departing train when I made a line transfer, because I arrived almost 10 minutes early!!

OTHER THINGS:

  • This was just something that I knew would happen but felt shocked anyway: the fact that everything is in Japanese. Looking out the window during my bus and taxi rides from the airport were definitely the times when I thought “Oh, wow. I really am in Japan.”

    This picture of Shibuya may not be the best example because there are some signs in English text, but it is still cool to see so much Japanese at once!
    This picture of Shibuya may not be the best example because there are some signs in English text, but it is still cool to see so much Japanese at once!
  • Sidewalks on the road are not really on the “side;” they are just wee little margins of the actual road. They’re SO NARROW!
    Yep, past the green line is the road. This margin is actually one of the wider ones I’ve seen!
    Yep, past the green line is the road. This margin is actually one of the wider ones I’ve seen!

    I kept getting yanked by the people I was walking with over to the side of the road because I kept going over the line.

  • Many appliances, doors, switches, and other small things you wouldn’t normally pay attention to are just slightly different enough that they can throw you off. Other than the obvious fact that instructions are in Japanese, some knobs and latches have to be turned the opposite way or sideways.

    Here’s an example of some typical light switches.
    Here’s an example of some typical light switches.
  • Everything is quiet and clean. Even dirty places aren’t that dirty compared to America.
  • The dogs here are TINY. Oh my goodness. And a lot of them wear sweaters and/or have their own strollers that they can ride in. Dog lovers, does this make you excited or freaked out? I’m currently alternating between the two myself.
  • GOOGLE MAPS ARE YOUR BEST FRIEND. Japanese addresses (especially streets) are the hardest to understand, so no one uses them to give directions. There are also helpful train info apps you can download that help you get from one side of town to the other without too much trouble. Here’s an example:img_04791

TIME FOR THE “YES/NO” Q&A CORNER!
FOR THINGS YOU MAY BE WONDERING ABOUT!

YES

  • …There are a lot of people who speak English and some menus/signs are written in English, but if you completely depend on that, you will get very stuck. Even though most Japanese people’s second language is English, not a lot of people are actually fluent. Usually you will get a very thick-accented, broken English, so do your best to try and learn Japanese so that you can at least meet people halfway.
  • …There are squat toilets. And yes, they are weird to use, but for all you girls out there, they make it easier for you if you’re wearing a skirt that day!img_0532
  • But there are usually also Western toilet alternatives so that you can avoid using them if you want to.img_0533
  • …The high-tech toilets are as wonderful as they say! Even though the bidet weirds me out, I tried it anyway, because c’mon, I’m in Japan after all!! And it’s quite nice! Also, the heated seats are amazing, especially when you have to go in the wee hours of the chilly morning.

    I mean, lookit all those buttons!
    I mean, look at all those buttons!
  • …People do stare at you, because you look different. Usually in their peripherals so that you don’t notice. Unless they’re kids. You’ll get used to it.
  • …The trains are as crowded as people say. Ho boy. It can get pretty hot and stuffy in there. Ugh. But it’s only bad during rush hours!

NO

  • …Being a vegetarian in a country full of seafood is really not as bad as everyone makes it out to be. It’s not like the only thing people eat here is sushi!!
    Japanese salad, pickled veggies, ramen, kimchi, and onigiri for lunch! Nutritious and delicious, am I right?
    Japanese salad, pickled veggies, ramen, kimchi, and onigiri for lunch! Nutritious and delicious, am I right?

    The only sad things for me are that I haven’t seen a lot of fake meat products here (bean patties, imitation crab, veggie burgers, etc.) so far, and also that Japanese people have no idea what food vegetarians do/don’t eat, so you have to be patient when explaining to someone.

  • …conbinis are not cheap. Just because they’re convenient doesn’t mean the prices are! I learned that the hard way after getting some of the same products at a grocery store later for a much lower price.
  • …I haven’t gotten truly lost yet, surprisingly! Like, I said. GOOGLE MAPS. It is wonderful. But if your phone dies or something, it is relatively easy to just walk until you find a train station, and then you will be in the clear again. And most people are willing to give you directions as well!

And this concludes my First Impressions post of Japan! If you have a question that hasn’t already been answered or want to see more pictures of something I’ve mentioned, feel free to leave a comment!

See you in the next post!

Host Family Life

It had now been a week since I have moved in with my host family. I am living in La Marsa, which is a suburb of Tunis and about a five minute taxi ride from the SIT study center where I take classes.

My family consists of my mother whom I call “mama,” one of the Arabic words for mother. I have a host father who I call “baba,” one of the Arabic words for father, and two host siblings who live in the house. My host brother who lives with us is 29 and his name is Hichem. He speaks some English and works at a bank in the Carthage airport. He told me he is very lucky to have a job right now because of the current economic situation in Tunisia.

During the revolution in 2011, many youth called for economic reforms. Tunisia is still struggling with ways to improve its economy and the unemployment rate is roughly 15%, yet it is 35% for youth. This means every two out of five young Tunisians is unemployed.

My host sister Imeni falls into this category. She is 23 years old and studied the culinary arts in college. While she was working as a baker in a hotel before, she is currently out of a job. She is also recently engaged and everyone is very excited about it. Weddings are a VERY VERY big deal in Tunisia. Weddings are usually seven days long and are very rich in tradition. I hope I will get to see one before I leave. My host sister’s wedding is not until two more years since she and her fiance are waiting to move into the home of her fiance’s parents, but there are currently too many people living there. Or at least that is what I understood using my limited French and Arabic.

My home in La Marsa
My home in La Marsa
The view from my roof - I love reading up here, it's so peaceful!
The view from my roof – I love reading up here, it’s so peaceful!
They have chickens on the roof! And they did have a rooster, but I think they moved him after I mentioned that he was a bit loud in the morning.
They have chickens on the roof! And they did have a rooster, but I think they moved him after I mentioned that he was a bit loud in the morning.

I also have two other host brother’s who live nearby. One is named Amer who lives with his wife, Rim and their two daughters Linda and Lina. Linda is five and Lina is four and they are both adorable. Amer and his family come over almost every night for dinner. Amer speaks English and when I told him I was studying the revolution in Tunisia, he said he was excited to talk about the history of Tunisia with me and the current political situation. I have been learning a lot about Bourgiba and Ben Ali and will post about that soon.

The other brother is named Iness and lives in La Marsa as well with his wife and son who is seven and very into Spiderman.

The view of my street. It is a pretty quiet neighborhood, but the beach and the downtown area are both only a five minute taxi ride away
The view of my street. It is a pretty quiet neighborhood, but the beach and the downtown area are both only a five minute taxi ride away

There is always something going on at my house, we have various family members over every night. While I enjoy all the excitement, it is a bit tiring to listen to Arabic for four hours straight. But I can tell my Arabic and my French too are improving daily. I’m looking forward to building my vocabulary so I can communicate more with my family.

I have been trying to offer to help around the house and the other night my host mother let me help her cooks. She was making a traditional Tunisian dish called brik. Brik is fried dough filled with an egg, tuna and parsley. My most mother served it with french fires and a rice dish with olives and of course bread! Bread is served at every meal and is usually a baguette. Tunisian food is a mix of Mediterranean cuisines and has a large Italian and French influence.

Helping my host mom prepare brik
Helping my host mom prepare brik

I have been bonding with my host sister over baked goods! Last night she asked me to bake a cake with her. It had a chocolate ganache frosting and the cake itself was vanilla. It was a fun process, even if we did burn the cake a bit because we forgot about it! I’m looking forward to spending more time with her.

Baking a cake with my host sister
Baking a cake with my host sister
Melting the chocolate for the ganache, yum!
Melting the chocolate for the ganache, yum!

I don’t have a picture of the final product since my host sister was disappointed with how it turned out and didn’t want me to take a picture of it. Although Imeni didn’t think it was perfect, it tasted delicious! And of course I was served a huge piece of it for breakfast.

I told my host family I wanted to bake something American for them. I was thinking pancakes because that is easy enough that I can’t mess up!

Until next time,

Bseelema