La Vie Française

Hello, world! I am back at it and this time not suffering from the negative effects of jet lag! I have now been in Paris for almost a month so I feel that I’m much more able to start posting about happenings and life in general in Paris now that I’m better acquainted with the city. This week we are talking about: the French home.

My study abroad program, French and Critical Studies with CIEE, is a language intensive program which means that everything that we do associated with CIEE is in French. What that means is that the program forces us to be fully immersed in the language ALL .THE. TIME. CIEE in Paris has two options for housing: student apartments or a homestay with a French family. The students in FCS, however, don’t have a choice; we are required to live in a home stay in order to keep us exposed to the French language.

That being said, for the past month I have been living with my host mother, Katherine (pronounced Kat-rine with a nice French rgh) who, as I mentioned in the previous post, doesn’t speak a word of English. When I first learned this, I was terrified that she and I would struggle to relate with one another; I feared that I wouldn’t be able to express myself. However, we are nearly a month into living, speaking, and dining with each other every single day and I can confidently say that my fears were completely unfounded.

You see, Katherine loves, and I mean LOVES to talk. She sits with me at breakfast every morning and listens to the radio, but as soon as she hears something that sparks her interest the radio is forgotten and she is speaking, with a relatively high level of knowledge about the subject and flowing right on into the next one. This was especially great for me the first few days into living with her because there really wasn’t a need for me to talk and I could get used to the pace of speech from an actual French speaker. These days I’m much better able to interject with my own opinions on the subject and she and I can have more and more conversations which I think both she and I really appreciate.

As I’ve been able to communicate with Katherine, I’ve learned a lot more about her and her life. She is in her 70s with three grown daughters, two of whom live nearby and frequent the apartment. She started her professional life as a secretary but somehow got connected with someone in the art restoration business which led to her second and most favorite career as an art restorer. She told me that she’s worked on a team that has restored big pieces of art such a painted ceiling in the Louvre and another work in l’Assemblée Nationale. She still does some smaller pieces and I occasionally come home to the smell of some of her chemicals that she uses on the paintings.

Speaking of home, for Katherine and me home is a two bedroom apartment in the northwestern suburb of Paris called Neuilly-Sur-Seine. There I have my own room with a big window that looks out over our ally with those cute white Parisian window shutters. I also just have to mention: in the bathroom we have a heating rack for our towels! It’s pretty standard for French homes but I just find it amusing and also incredibly amazing when I get to wrap myself in a warm towel — it’s just great.

My bedroom

Our living room

A little bit about Neuilly: it’s smack dab in between l’Arc de Triomphe (that fancy Roman-looking arch that Napoleon built way back when) and La Defense which is just a gigantic hollow cube in the more business-y part of Paris. Neuilly, as I’m told, is rather chic, although I can’t say that stops people from letting their dogs “relieve” themselves on the sidewalks and not clean up after them. Yeah, watch your step.

Other than that, I’ve found that our apartment in Neuilly is actually in quite an ideal location. It takes me about four minutes to walk to the metro which will then take me straight into the city which can connect me to ten of the fourteen lines in the city. I am also just a ten minute walk away from the Bois de Boulogne which is to Paris what Central Park is to New York. Saturdays are especially hectic with runners and walkers everywhere, not to mention tons of adorable dogs out playing in the fields.

Bois de Boulogne
Some new friends I met in the park

Another essential part of my French home life is the food. Katherine is an amazing cook. She can turn anything into a delicious and nutritious meal. I remember my first night with her I was a little apprehensive when she put my first meal in front of me: cabbage wrapped in ham and covered in cheese. As far as looks went, I was strongly questioning whether what I was about to put into my body would even be worth it, but I was starving so I dug in and it was incredible! Also, leftover night at our place is not to be dreaded because she just whips something completely new together from the ingredients she used previously. I’m serious — carrot and mushroom in a creamy sauce over angel hair pasta…who would have thought?!

At times Paris can feel slightly exhausting and incredibly lonely; it’s hard to live in a place that you’re unfamiliar with around people who don’t know you or even speak your language. In a city where it is so easy to be anonymous sometimes you just want a taste of home. I’m sure every student who has studied in a foreign country understands exactly what I mean, but I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have this opportunity. When I get these kinds of feelings I’ve found that it’s best to talk to friends and family; they really are just a phone call away! Also, if you can find it, eat some of your favorite food. If you can’t find that, listen to some of your favorite songs or do the same activities you would at home. For me, I’ve found that going for a run helps me immensely because running has always been a very cathartic activity and it’s something that I’ve done first at home, then at school when I moved away from home, and now I can do it here!

No, things will not be exactly the same as they are at home but that’s precisely the purpose of study abroad: to gain a new perspective. Instead of being stuck on what I miss about my home in the U.S., I go out and explore to find new things that help me feel at home here.

Fresh Air is Good for the Soul

Ever since I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve dreamed of living in a city.  Getting an apartment in New York or Chicago, taking public transportation to work every day; it all seemed like the dream. And living in London was the perfect trial run for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am loving living in the city. There’s so much to do and see every single day. It really keeps you on your toes too. The other day as I went by on the bus, I saw a man serenading some people very enthusiastically with his saxophone. But one thing I didn’t anticipate was how much I was going to miss grass and trees and air that doesn’t smell like bus fumes all the time.

This past weekend we had a field trip to go see Stonehenge and spend a night in the city of Bath. I missed most of the drive up due to being asleep, but once we arrived at Stonehenge, I was surprised at how green everything still was. I’m so used to everything being brown and dead-looking in the middle of January.

After we walked around the stones for a while, my friends and I decided to not take the bus back to the visitor center and hike along the path through the hills instead. It was a bit blustery, but eventually the sun came out, and it was gorgeous. It was then that I realized how much I missed my shoes slipping in the mud while hiking, and the damp smell the earth gives after it rains.

In Bath we had a similar experience. The line to be able to sit in one of the baths fed by the hot springs was much too long, so once again, we decided to walk around. As we looked around the city, we noticed a large park that was situated a bit higher up than the rest of the city. We had no idea how to get there, but we were determined to find it anyway.

We walked out of the city center, into a neighborhood just outside of the city (accidentally walking through a few people’s garden paths in the process). Soon, we found the park. It’s green carpet was a vivid difference in comparison to the pale architecture of the rest of the city. We made our way up.

All of us decided not to look at the view until we hit the very top of the hill. As we stood with our backs facing the city, panting slightly from the incline, there was no doubt that smiles were plastered on all of our faces.

“One…Two…Three”

 

 

It was worth the biting wind, the muddy shoes, and forty-five-minute hike. If nothing else, it made me realize just how much I loved exploring in this capacity. It was refreshing to be able to clear our lungs and take a moment to appreciate this amazing journey we’re on.

The Start of my Journey

People say to trust your instincts because they’re usually right. Instincts, it turns out, aren’t as good when you’ve just arrived in a foreign country, sleep deprived, and in desperate need of food and a shower.

I took a flight from Minneapolis to Cincinnati on Sunday, January 6 and from there I took an overnight flight to Paris. Once the sun set it was hard to see anything from the window of the plane, although every once in a while we would fly over a city and get just a glimpse of what was happening down below. Just twenty minutes before we were to land in Paris, the sun peeked above the clouds and I watched the most beautiful sunrise from 30,000 feet which is most definitely a great way to start the day.

As soon as I was out of customs I was tasked with getting from where I was to where I needed to be, a feat that is greatly complicated when you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. After consulting a map I determined that I needed to go down a level; that was wrong. I ended up hauling my suitcases around for about five or ten minutes before I realized I was going the wrong direction, that and I definitely was not supposed to be in a parking garage. That aside, I went back upstairs into the airport which was definitely a step in the right direction and decided to go the other way since clearly my first instinct was wrong. This turned out to be a good idea because eventually I found myself at the airport door where I was supposed to meet up with other people from my program.

Here was where I found my second great obstacle: there was this massive group of people just standing around exactly where I needed to be. My instincts told me that this was not my group of people, there were far too many and I didn’t recognize anyone from my group chat of the ten total students in my program. So I did exactly what any other person my age would do: I checked my phone. I found that I was in the right place, but if that was true then why was there nobody else from my program?! I took one last look around and spotted my savior, it was someone I knew! Well, not really, but I recognized him from my program’s group chat so I walked right up to him and introduced myself and immediately explained my confusion. Turns out, he (his name is Nat) was extremely confused as well. We waited together for a few more minutes, looking around occasionally until Nat asked “isn’t that Brent Keever?” He pointed to a man, Brent Keever, who is the director of our program standing directly at the center of the large group. I sighed in relief.

Turns out, Brent was going to be meeting students from our program at the same time that he was meeting students from a different, larger program that he was running as well. We hauled our luggage over to Brent and introduced ourselves and within minutes we were handed lunch bags with baguette sandwiches and other orientation materials. Eventually everyone from our program arrived and we all got to know each other while eating baguette sandwiches and waiting for our taxis.

I got put in a taxi with three other students from the other program and none of them spoke any French which left it to me to communicate to the driver where everyone was supposed to go. At first I was quite apprehensive to start any kind of conversation with him because I’d always heard that Parisians were rude, but our driver turned out to be nothing like what I’d anticipated. Once he realized that I could understand and speak French he struck up a conversation with me about where and for how long I studied French, what I was doing in Paris, what I thought of Macron and the Gilets Jaunes (working class protesters who wear yellow safety vests to protest diesel gas tax and now other social issues). In turn I learned that he is actually originally from Algeria and knows French as a second language, that he’s visited his sisters in the United States multiple times, and that I should learn important grammar rules sooner rather than later. By the time he had dropped everyone off at their apartments and arrived at my homestay we’d covered so many subjects that it felt as if we were old friends. Even my preconceived notions about my taxi driver were wrong.

I exited the taxi and the driver, who never told me his name, left me and my suitcases to face my next task: my host mom. I was just a little proud of myself for making it all the way to her apartment with my French skills but I would be glad to speak at least a little English; after all, I’d heard that most Parisians knew the language. As I was approaching her apartment building she popped her head out of a window on the first floor and shouted down to me  “Emma, ma chère! Bienvenue chez moi!”

I smiled up at her and she disappeared from the window only to reappear at the door of the building to help me with my suitcases. She pointed out the elevator with pride and somehow fit both of us and my suitcases inside, though it still remains a mystery to me how she managed to do it. All the while she was speaking to me in rapid-fire French that made my head spin, but I was able to understand one essential piece of information: she doesn’t know any English.

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.

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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.

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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 🙂