Academics at Yonsei University

I have been in Korea now for just over a month and classes are in full swing. Before coming to Yonsei, I had heard a variety of opinions on the classes here, ranging from very difficult to supremely easy. Over the past month I’ve realized all my classes have one thing in common – they are extremely interesting.

Yonsei is considered one of the top universities in Korea, and this is reflected in the caliber of their professors. I’m taking four classes- Korean language, Pre-modern Korean History, Free Trade Agreements, and International Relations in East Asia. All three of my academic class professors have advanced degrees and impressive work experience. My Free Trade Agreements professor was a senior advisor at the Albright Stonebridge group, a consulting firm founded by Georgetown’s very own Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. My IR professor served as the Korean Ambassador to Australia and President of the Korea Foundation. It is exciting to take classes from proven experts in their fields. Their knowledge is apparent in the way they can discuss current affairs and relate their knowledge to our class topics. It’s not uncommon for my IR professor to name drop foreign dignitaries and casually mention his close relationships with other political scholars.

My history and free trade agreements class both are courses exclusively for study abroad students. I had heard these classes were beyond easy, and while they are a little more relaxed than my international relations class that I take with actual Yonsei students, they are just as engaging and educational. My history professor has a very straightforward style of teaching which I appreciate, and the articles he assigns provides insight not only into the actual history of Korea, but also the methodology of historians in the region. A large part of our class is being able to analyze the perspectives of historians and appreciate the ideological influences of the author and era on the presentation of history. In my Free Trade Agreements class, I’ve learned more about current affairs than I ever could have through checking American news outlets. This class largely operates in acronyms; I now know what THAAD, AIIB, NAFTA, ASEAN, and RoO stand for and their significance on the global stage. Having never taken an economics course, I’m basically learning the basics through application to real world events.

In addition to my academic classes, my Korean class is awesome. My class is fairly small, with 12 students, and is split between 2 teachers. My teachers are awesome with an effective teaching style similar to the style of Georgetown’s Chinese classes. Classes are engaging, and my teachers effectively explain grammar and vocabulary, constantly checking to make sure everyone understands. In class we practice listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Yonsei’s textbooks are also great, with clear explanations of grammar and defined vocab lists; I wish I had been exposed to them earlier. My only complaint is that with the same schedule every week, classes can get sort of monotonous. Although we’ve only been in class for a month, everyone’s language abilities are noticeably improving. Yonsei knows how to teach Korean.

Overall, I’ve been very satisfied with academics at Yonsei. Is it weird I’m actually looking forward to writing my term papers?

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Adapting to Oz

Today marks the start of my fourth week of classes at the University of Sydney, and I can happily say that my transition into Australian life has been anything but difficult. In fact, it’s been quite healthy for me, and I believe that this is owed to the way in which Australians live and how they view the world.

To give a little bit of background, I have always taken my studies really seriously. Since high school, I thought I had my life planned out: I was going to go to college, work really hard, get good grades, go to medical school, and then live happily ever after as a successful doctor. Hooray. And so, during my first couple years at Georgetown, I prioritized academic achievement above all else. I felt stressed much of the time because there was always another exam, assignment, or event outside of classes that required my attention, but I kept pushing through because I was following my plan. I was going to live my dream. Unfortunately, I think that this attitude caused me to miss out on a lot during these years. In a way, I was seeing my “real life” as my life after graduation (perhaps even after medical school), which was a shame, because my real life is happening right now. It took me a long time to realize this, but I’m so glad that I finally did.

Being here in Australia helped me to gain a new perspective on my life. In general, Australians are very down-to-earth people. They’ll always be keen to grab a beer at the pub or relax on the beach after a hard day. They’re also flexible and outgoing – I can’t count the number of times complete strangers have helped me out when I was confused about directions, the metro, or even which sheets set to buy in KMart. If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, they say, “no worries.” And they really don’t worry. This way of life is contagious. Since I’ve been here, I’ve realized that I’ve been way too caught up in the details. Life isn’t about getting the perfect grades so that you can get the perfect job. Life is about appreciating the now. It’s about taking chances, making new friends, and going to that concert even if it means you’ll be up for ages afterward in order to finish your assignment. Since I’ve been in Australia, I’ve been appreciating the now so much more, and because of it, I’ve never felt happier.

So thanks, Aussies. Cheers to today.

 

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From Foreigner to (Semi) Local

Two months ago when I first arrived in Edinburgh, I created a personal blog to update my parents and friends on my study abroad experience. My first post was about the little differences that overwhelmed and preoccupied me, making my first few days here hectic and stressful. This included the bathroom faucets. I remember standing in the bathroom the first night I arrived – tired, hungry, annoyed – trying to work the faucets on my new shower. It was such a little thing, and totally innocuous in the grand scheme of things, but my failure to turn on the shower I so desperately wanted was the final straw. I was frustrated, angry, and sure I would never be able to adjust. All I wanted to do was get on the next flight back home!

Of course, it is entirely normal for every study abroad student to experience culture shock and homesickness. I was lucky enough to go to an English speaking country, so at least I did not have to adjust to a new language (although the heavy Scottish accent can take some effort to decipher), and the United Kingdom is quite similar to America in many regards. However, the things I took for granted, like my knowledge of shower faucets, were the things that made my first few weeks a struggle. Everything from the acronyms of the university to the pronunciation of street names was new, and my repeated errors embarrassed and frustrated me.

I quickly resigned myself to feeling like a foreigner for the duration of my stay in Edinburgh. My accent alone marked me, and often I would go out of my way to avoid revealing it. For example, I always tried to use the automatic checkout machines in the grocery store because I did not want to talk to the person at the register. Grocery shopping is something locals do, and I wanted to be identified as one of them, something my accent immediately ruined. I know that I was being silly, but it was important to me to fit in as much as I possibly could.

This past week, my cousin and friend have both visited me in Edinburgh. I have been their tour guide, showing them everything I think is worth seeing, and trying some new experiences that I have been planning on doing for awhile. The ease in which I have adopted the role of tour guide has startled me. A few months ago, I was the stranger here. Now, I am navigating the streets without consulting a map and repeating the history of famous landmarks with the pride of a Scot.

Once again, it is the little things that remind me how far I have come. The odd street names are no longer a mystery to me, but they can confuse my American visitors. Many streets in Edinburgh are called a ‘close.’ For example, I live on Robertson’s Close. In a text to my cousin, I told her that we were going to tour Mary King’s Close, and she was incredibly confused. She kept asking what we were actually doing, and if the attraction was closed. I could not understand what the problem was, but when I showed my friend the texts, she immediately understood where my cousin’s confusion was coming from. My cousin had automatically interpreted ‘close’ in the only way she understood – as a verb rather than a street name. But I could not see that distinction, because I was so used to using ‘close’ to describe a street here in Edinburgh.

Another problem for my American visitors has been the Scottish accents. While they love listening to the Scots, occasionally they cannot understand everything that is being said. My cousin and friend have complained about being unable to comprehend tour guides, and have often asked me what someone has just said. The accent was a small stumbling block for me at the beginning as well. Many times I would simply nod at a person and give an unconvincing laugh because I could not decipher what they were saying. To be fair, I do that often in America, but here it was another reminder of how foreign I was. Now, however, most accents are not a problem for me, and I can happily interpret the Scots to my visitors!

This past week has shown me how easy it was for me to adjust and fall in love with Edinburgh. Two months ago I was despairing, sure I would never be able to assimilate completely. Of course, I am nowhere near calling myself an official resident of Scotland (I would also have to get an actual visa, and that process does not appeal to me in any way), but I am also no longer lost and confused in a new city, or ashamed of being foreign. I am proud to live in Edinburgh as a semi-local, and I am proud to be an American in the United Kingdom.

Some days are still hectic and stressful, and some things are still confusing and astounding to me. (Scottish cuisine is one of the latter. Deep fried pizzas, black pudding, haggis – who thought these were good ideas?!) But overall, I have assimilated into the life and culture of Edinburgh. Now when I post in my personal blog, I can tell my readers about the wonders of this city, and hopefully never again regale them with tales of the bathroom faucet.

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America and Australia: The Differences that Matter

Is Australia really that different from America? At a first glance, it appears that these two English speaking, developed countries could be easily placed in the same category. Some have asked… out of all the countries to study abroad, why Australia? What type of meaningful cultural immersion could you experience in a country where the majority of the people are white? In a country that follows almost all of the United State’s world politics? In a country that speaks English?

I would be the first to tell you, having travelled to countries in Europe, Central America, and South America… that yes Australia is very similar to the United States. There are broad cultural similarities that make “cultural immersion” not a difficult process.

These similarities could make it easy for myself to become accustomed to our spacious two-bedroom apartment with a view that overlooks the city, the reliable tram system that makes commuting a breeze, and the endless options for food and entertainment. However, in the month that I have been here, they have also forced me to look deeper into subtle, meaningful contrasts between the Australian and American ways of life. I am aware of the dangers of generalizing about entire countries or groups of people, but there are key differences that I have observed when interacting with students, professors, and community members. I would also specify my comments about the city of Melbourne; as how could I possibly already know about the people of an entire continent!?

Every Melburnian has told me that the city is famous for having four seasons in one day. The day may start out with a thunderstorm, transition to a sunny, warm day, followed by high winds, and perhaps a chilly evening. On a recent trip to Ocean Grove to learn to surf, we woke up with the sound of rain beating against the window. “But what do you mean we are still going to the beach?” After an hour-long bus ride we arrived at the ocean, the rain had stopped, and the sun was out. Melburnians joke about this, because overall their weather is quite spectacular.

Instead of a city with four seasons in one day, I like to think of Melbourne as a vibrant city where you could easily experience at least 4 (most likely many more!) unique cultures or perspectives in one day.

Every day that I am here seems to go by so quickly, and when I reflect on the day, I am surprised by how many wildly different experiences I have had. Not only are they in direct contrast with many of my experiences in the US, but the ability to experience a diverse range of views in one day is worth noting. It has already connected to me to this city in a way that I have never felt before. For example, during the course of one single day…

… Before class I head over to the outdoor market and stop to listen to an incredible Brazilian Samba band. I listen for a few minutes as I eat my cheese pastry, and soon the crowd grows with children dancing in the middle. A homeless man, with very little clothing, begins to dance as well. Instead of calling the police, everyone laughs with (not at) him. One woman offers the man some spare change. He promptly gives it away to the band.

… Later in the day, I walk into my first lecture for “Gender, Ethics, and the Family”, and notice a few boys already sitting down. I thought that was interesting as I have never been in a gender class at Georgetown with more than one male student. I sit down, and the room fills, and as I look around I am shocked as more and more male students enter the class.

… Next on the agenda is my “God and the Natural Sciences” theology lecture. There are two professors for this course. The first one introduces himself as Reverend Stephen Ames, an Orthodox Christian. As a student with no extensive religious education, I think “…What kind of class have I signed up for?”. The next professor then introduces himself as Dr. Kristian Camilleri, an atheist. This course has the potential to be one of the most provocative classes I have ever taken.

… After I finish my classes, I make my way to the university sports center to attend a pilates class. I have taken many Pilates and yoga classes at home, but never one like this.  We only did a few exercises in the hour-long class with very little movement. The teacher tells us that “less is more”, and if you are not doing the movement correctly there is no point in doing it all. She checks each student’s alignment in every single position. I think about the control of my breath, the alignment of my spine, and the connection between my ribs and hips. At the end of the class, I am mentally exhausted although I did not even break a sweat.

These are the observable facts of just a few of my experiences thus far in Melbourne. I would invite you to draw your own conclusions about America and Australia. Is Australia really that different from America?

To me, while we share a common language and many of our world political stances; Melbourne feels unique in its acceptance of differences, desire for diversity, genuine interest and care for others, and perhaps most freeing of all… it’s “no worries”, Aussie mindset. While the city is constantly moving, there is no sense of stress or anxiety. While the University of Melbourne is said to be one of the most challenging schools in Australia, students and professors seem relaxed and eager to learn for the sake of learning not for a grade or award.

Differences go beyond the colorful plastic money, the prolific use of curse words, the love of vegemite, and the consumption of kangaroo burgers. The contrast is in the people. Each day is a new adventure, and I cannot wait to wake up every morning in this city to explore, learn, and grow.

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Looking Back

During my last couple of days in Edinburgh, everything seemed to be more pleasant, more beautiful, more enjoyable. As I began to realize that every sight I saw, every black tea I drank or scone I devoured, would be my last one, I felt the great urgency to absorb every last feeling. The long and seemingly never-ending walk to campus didn’t seem to drag on as painfully, as I admired all the old houses and peaked into the many bakeries and cafes on my way home. Even the 24 mph winds that blew tears out of your eyes as you walked didn’t seem as miserable.

As I sit at my dining table now, with the windows and front door wide open and the sun filling the room, I am filled with an unsuspected feeling. After studying for finals that counted for 80% of my grade, and enduring the wind, rain, and daylight ending by 4pm, I dreamt about being able to go for a run outside in shorts and a t-shirt. But now that I can go for runs along the beach, and don’t have to time my days according to the 6 hours of daylight a day, I catch myself missing Edinburgh and all of its windswept charm.  Even more, it’s hard to believe that my study abroad experience has happened and is now something I reminiscence on rather than look forward to. Starting in high school, I always knew I wanted to take part in the study abroad experience—when I first heard that you could take a semester or year to study in another country anywhere around the world, I immediately knew I wanted in. It seemed like a no-brainer taking advantage of this opportunity.

Now, nearly 7 years later, I have spent a semester abroad and can say that it has lived up to my expectations. Actually, I don’t know if I can even say that, because I went to Edinburgh without any firm expectations (mainly, just a strong desire not to get run over by a car from walking on the wrong side of the road). I had no idea what the food would be like, the weather, the student housing, the transportation, etc. (granted you can easily find this stuff out before you go abroad). Edinburgh took me by surprise with its history and culture seeped into every building and alley, and its success in having delicious Indian curries. The contrast between Old Town and New Town left the city in a fine balance between preserving the past and building the future. And if you ventured outside of Edinburgh, you could find yourself in the artsy and upbeat city of Glasgow, or beneath the peacefully looming Highlands. And if you took the 35 Bus, you could be at the airport in 45 minutes, and find yourself getting on a plane to Amsterdam. When you study abroad it is natural to want to cram everything into the 12 weeks you are there. The 35 Bus to EDI may become your most familiar bus route and you will probably get very good at stuffing your backpack full and keeping your liquids under 4 oz.  However, amidst all the travelling, don’t forget to take the long route to class along the canals, or walk into a café whose cakes just smell too good. Some of your best memories will be right down the road.

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A Day in the ACC Life

ACC's host school Minzu University

ACC’s host school Minzu University

Here’s what the typical day at ACC looks like for the first couple weeks:

5:30am- First alarm goes off. Jump out of bed, quietly make your way to the restroom to get dressed without waking the roommate.

5:50- Now that you’re ready for the day, sit down at your desk, open Quizlet, and review the ~100 new vocab words for that day’s lesson. Continue reviewing until you get 100% correct.

7:15- You have extra time.  Reread the text from the lesson. Look over the grammar. Check facebook, if you can get your VPN to work.

7:45- Leave for class. Class starts at 8 and is in the building directly next to the dorm, but you want to look over the vocab for a few minutes before class starts.

Classroom at ACC

Classroom at ACC

8:00-Time for the 听写!This daily quiz tests your knowledge of the vocab for the day’s lesson. There are 6 questions. After the quiz, you have 大班课(big class) for 50 minutes. The teacher goes through a powerpoint and explains new vocab and grammar and cold calls on students to answer her questions. It’s pretty similar to Georgetown’s Chinese classes.

9:00- Switch classes for 小班课aka small class. This class has a couple less students and is basically the same structure as big class, except there’s more individual attention. You’re getting pretty sleepy in this class and try to plan a scenario in which you have time to go by the vending machine in the dorm.

10:00-Time for 讨论课/ discussion class! This class is you with one or two other students and a teacher. The 50 minutes is spent discussing a topic that you prepared on a worksheet the night before. It’s a good opportunity to have a meaningful discussion with your peers about the material covered in class. You’re pretty stressed out because the other girl in your class was a summer student and has been at ACC for a couple months already. She knows how to play this game and you’re a little anxious about engaging with this讨论课 veteran.

11:00-Here’s where it gets tricky. There are three periods for one-on-one class/单班课。The first is at 11, the second at 12, and the third at 1:40. Each week your assigned time changes. Today you have the first class. You’re very nervous about spending the next 50 minutes talking one-on-one with a teacher, especially since today is a teacher you’ve never had before! Fortunately, like all of the ACC teachers, this one is very nice and helpful, and together you spend the entire class discussing the lesson and practicing using grammar and vocab.

12:00pm- After class, you anxiously text all your friends to see who is available to eat lunch. You still don’t recognize everyone’s Chinese names, so looking at the schedule doesn’t really help. You find someone to eat with and head to the cafeteria. Last week you found a fried rice dish that wasn’t horrible and order that every day. Today is not an exception. While waiting for you food, you look around at your Chinese peers. They all seem to be staring at you. Am I really that white? You get your food after what seems like an eternity and sit down at one of the long tables with your friend to eat.

1:00- You should get started on studying. You look over the vocab but ultimately decide to have a nice afternoon break. You surf the web for a while before your 责任感 compels you to begin studying. You spend the rest of the day alternating between trying to learn the new vocab and checking Facebook.

6:00- You should probably eat dinner. Your friends and you briefly consider going to a Chinese restaurant, but it’s been a long day and you’re not prepared for the stress of trying to figure out what is edible. Ultimately, you all head to Tube Station, the pizza joint. It’s a little expensive, but pizza is just so good.

7:30- You arrive back in your room. You open Quizlet and resume studying the vocab. You decide maybe you’ll be more productive on B2, the ACC floor in the dorm. It has classrooms, a big study room, and, most importantly, WiFi. So many people are there studying! It’s a big ACC study party. After a few hours, you realize it’s getting late and you return to your room to sleep.

 

Dorm Room at ACC

Dorm Room at ACC

Now, here’s what a typical day at ACC looks like in the last couple weeks:

6:30am- First alarm goes off. You’re pretty tired and you don’t have that much to study, so you go back to sleep.

6:45- 2nd alarm. Ehh.

7:00- 3rd alarm goes off. You should probably get up now. You stay in bed and grab your laptop from your bedside table. You practice the grammar on Quizlet once. 55% accuracy. Not bad.

7:30- Get out of bed and get dressed.

7:50- Leave for class. Stop by vending machine to buy a 4 kuai coffee in a can or a 3.5 kuai sugary tea drink in a bottle.

8:00- 听写!It’s no big deal. You don’t remember a few words but that’s just life. Class starts and you immediately want to go back to sleep. You pop open your coffee and chug it down like your life depends on it. You don’t want to be sleepy; it just happens. The rest of the class is a struggle to be engaged and learning.

9:00- 小班课! You’re still tired, but you have to be on your A game in this class. For some reason the teacher always calls on your for the sentences you’re not sure how to answer, and doesn’t call on you for the easy questions everyone else keeps flubbing.

10:00-讨论课 time! Everyone is friends by now, so discussion class is pretty relaxed. What starts as an on-topic discussion about our lesson usually turns into a discussion with the teacher about China’s culture and politics.

11:00-Today you have the third one-on-one class. You go with your friends to the cafeteria to get a 6 kuai rice meal. You’re pretty sick of everything you’ve already tried at the cafeteria, so every day you ask the cafeteria worker for a suggestion. Today’s suggestion was not bad. You take your food to go and return to your dorm room. After eating and watching tv for a while in bed, you still have an hour before class. Nap time.

1:40pm- Time for class! Uh oh! You have the intense teacher. He prompts you to use 6 grammar patterns in a row and it takes 15 minutes to complete one sentence. After a while of intense grammar practice, the conversation turns more casual and you have an in-depth conversation about the differences between China and America. Today’s conversation turns to the impact of campaign contributions on American politics and how corruption in Chinese business makes it hard for American companies to make partners in China. After class you realize he’s actually you’re favorite teacher for danbanke.

2:30- Class is over. Should you go out into the city or watch TV in bed? Why not both? After watching a show on YouKu, you meet up with your friends to go to one of the few remaining tourist destinations you have yet to visit.

5:00- After spending a couple hours at your destination, it’s time to head back to campus. It’s already dark and it’s freezing outside. After arriving back at the National Library metro station, you and your friends walk back to campus and decide on a place for dinner.

6:00- Dinner time! Y’all make your way to the Korean place down the alley in 西门(儿)and all order bibimbap. After dinner, you go to the bing place to get jelly filled pastry things for 1 kuai. So tasty.

7:00- After getting food, you head back to the dorm. On the way, you pass CoCo and decide you need that milk tea. The warmth of your beverage makes the walk to the dorm slightly more bearable in the freezing cold. After you hit your floor button on the dorm elevator, you belatedly realize you should go up to the 6th floor to get your quiz from your cubby. Even though you spend way less time studying than at the beginning of the semester, you consistently get better grades.

8:30-It’s getting late and you realize you should probably start studying. You write down the vocab words a couple times, read through the lesson, do the discussion class homework, and call it a night. Recalling new words has become so much easier over the semester. Most characters are recognizable; you just need to learn what a combination of previously known characters mean put together.

10:00- You’re pretty much done studying so you spend a little while catching up on things back home before going to bed, a little sad that your ACC experience is so close to coming to an end.

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Lists

As I walk down Prince’s street for at least the 30th time, I once again pass by Red Squirrel, a homey-looking restaurant whose motto is “great beer & a bite to eat.” “Still got to go there!” I think to myself and pull out my American phone to add it to my ‘Places to eat in Edinburgh’ list. The list grows exponentially faster than I can cross off each item. With my departure date looming closer and closer, I feel the increasing pressure to eat my way through Edinburgh; every day conflicted between trying to save money to travel and making a dent in the abundance of restaurants in this city. In another note, I have a list for things to do in Edinburgh before I leave—including visiting the graveyard that inspired characters in Harry Potter and visiting the National Galleries, both of which I pass by almost every day. I am tempted to think that a semester is just not nearly enough time to eat at all the good restaurants and visit all the sites; however, when I think about it, I have eaten at more restaurants and seen more things these past 11 weeks than I have the past couple years back at home. The pressure to explore and discover really brings out the list-making side of me.

Today I had my last tutorial for one of my classes and received my first “best of luck back in America” from my tutorial leader; yet with nearly a month left of school, it felt like a bit of a pre-mature goodbye. As I walked away from New College, the Religion school’s building, it began to dawn on me that there is a good chance I will never see most of my classmates again. With its sprawling campus interspersed throughout the city and huge class sizes, it is easy to talk to someone in lecture and then not see them again for three weeks. With three weeks left, most of them being study days and finals, it is entirely possible that today’s tutorial was the last time I will see them. “I should’ve added them on Facebook!” I think to myself…Maybe they will want to study abroad at Georgetown their junior year. Today, the ephemeral nature of a study-abroad semester really revealed itself—making it more apparent the very unique situation that study abroad students are in. As semester study abroad students, our stay here has a definite start and end date that influences the things we do, how we do them, and who we do them with. Trying to travel throughout Europe, immerse ourselves in Scottish culture, and live the life of a Edinburgh student is nearly impossible— because what university student would just book a ticket on a whim and go to Amsterdam for the weekend? The temporariness of a semester abroad influences all aspects from not wanting to buy a toaster because we would have to abandon it after a semester, to not joining a club because the main project takes place next semester. So sadly, the end of semester good-bye season seems to have already begun. Only difference is, the goodbyes here consist of “let me know if you ever come to the US” rather than “see you next year”.

Things on the list:

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-Loch Lomond-

 

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-View from hike up to Arthur’s Seat-

 

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-Ruins of Holyrood Abbey-

 

 

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3 Weeks, 3 Cities

Paris and vespas and beer – oh my! So much has happened these last few weeks that, in order to keep this blog post as short and as sweet as possible, I’m only going to talk about the highlights (and there were many…)

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For starters, Paris, which was my first out of the country visit, is BEAUTIFUL! From the lock bridge to the Louvre, you really can’t beat the city’s upbeat atmosphere and regal architecture. I found that, while Florence is more rustic with strong ties to its historical past, Paris seems a bit more modern. Still, the city’s appreciation for the arts is apparent, a feature that Florence shares as well. Oh and attending the last leg of the Beyoncé and Jay-Z concert definitely didn’t hurt my impression on Paris either….

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Traveling to the beautiful wine county of Chianti, we decided to embrace the Italian lifestyle and ride a Vespa for the day, which, luckily, I did not crash! Vespas are one of the main forms of transportation in Italy and everyone, from little kids to grandmothers, are riding these things in style – helmets and all. At first, I did not know what to expect. Was it like a bike? How about a motorcycle? Could I even ride this thing by myself? Although I needed a couple practice loops around a parking lot, I eventually got the hang of it. What I found the trickiest was that there were no pedals. If you wanted to go, you simply grasped the handle bar and turned your hand towards you. If you wanted to stop, you pulled the break, which looked the same as a bicycle break. Once I finally wrapped my head around the fact that a vespa was the perfect crossbreed of a motorcycle and a bicycle, I was ready to hit the road and explore the beautiful hills of Chianti. We rode passed various castles, ate a few grapes still ripening on the vine, and got to enjoy a few glasses of it at a beautiful, fully loaded lunch nestled perfectly in the Chianti hills.

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Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany was the next stop on my list and was also my last stop for the month of September. It’s crazy how fast abroad goes by. Time really does fly when you’re having fun and eating the best pasta carbonara and blueberry steaks on the planet (more on that to come later…). As for Oktoberfest? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil any of it for soon to be abroadees but I’ll just say this: despite the 5:45 a.m. wake-up call,  it is a bucket list experience that could have been one of the best times of my life – and not to mention the BEST bratwurst I’ve ever had! Bratwurst is basically sausage and it is a huge delicacy in Germany (right up there with schnitzel). Outside of the Oktoberfest tents, there were lots and lots of delicious food stands and I may or may not have gotten my little sausage fix multiple times in one day. Don’t believe me? You’re just going to have to travel to Munich next year to see for yourself! Also a little advice – those decorated gingerbread cookies that everyone wears around their neck? Apparently you are NOT supposed to eat those…

That’s all for now! Stay tuned for some more of my adventures around Italy in the next coming weeks!

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Some Characters

Living alone in a foreign city is great but it can get lonely. That’s why it’s important to have people that are part of your daily routine, people who don’t necessarily know your name but who know that you take your coffee with cream and sugar, and that you like your ribeye medium-rare, so that by the time you sit down and order a drink it’s already simmering on the grill. That way, you can spend time to yourself without feeling too disconnected from the world.

One of these people is Fanta, the waitress at a brasserie not far from my place. She is a normal looking girl. You wouldn’t stop and stare if you saw her passing in the street, but that’s only because you wouldn’t have seen her smile. She has one of those remarkable smiles that you can’t really describe. I usually come by about twenty minutes before the end of her shift, so after I’ve finished eating she will sit down for a bit and talk over a cigarette.

There’s a sweet couple from outside Shanghai that own the sushi restaurant in the first floor of my apartment building. When I take a seat at the table by the window, the wife will ask if I want the usual, and if it’s a slow day she will bring me a glass of rosé and ask me about America.

There’s also an ornery Iranian man with a pita shop nearby school. His kids have grown up and moved away and he calls me “my boy” in Farsi. When I was sick, he made me mint tea with lemon and honey.

But by far my favorite is the owner of the bookstore on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, off of the boulevard St. Germain. His store is no bigger than a walk-in closet and the selection is quite small, which I like because it forces me to read things I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up. He buys back used books, so once I’ve finished reading something I can sell it back to him for half price and he’ll recommend something new. I don’t really like his taste in writers but I like that he cares enough to make suggestions. He’s a truly odd character. The first time I ever spoke to him, I asked him how long he’s owned the bookstore.

“I don’t own it,” he said.

“You don’t?”

“Nope. It owns me.”

It took some time for us to get comfortable with one another. He speaks almost hilariously accented French for someone who has been living here for seventeen years and he’ll criticize you if he doesn’t like the author you’ve chosen. Every week he says he will sell the bookstore, but he never does.

There is also the cat who lives in the basement of the Sciences Po building on Rue de l’Universite. If you make a kissing sound he’ll come sit on your lap while you read.

Of course I have friends who I will meet up with on the weekends or after class, but on the long days when I’m alone and walking around, these are the people that make Paris worth it. I wonder if I am as much a part of their daily routines as they are a part of mine.

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Who knows?

In French universities, the primary mode of evaluation is the exposé, a ten- to thirty-minute presentation on a topic relating to the course. While American social science and humanities courses are writing intensive, grading students based on the quality of their essays and research papers, French courses are almost exclusively oral. The professor’s lecture is often squeezed into the time left over after a student’s exposé.

Exposés are difficult to get the hang of at first. American students will be tempted to advance a thesis and to defend it logic and careful research. But nothing will alienate a French professor more than this argumentative approach. The exposé begins with a short introduction before presenting the problematique—the central paradox or question at hand. It then follows a very strict formula of yes, no, maybe. That is, part one will make the case for one answer to or understanding of the question, and part two will invariably take the opposing view. Finally, there will be a conclusion, which is almost always something to the effect of: “One the one hand this, on the other hand that, but, really, who knows?” Students follow this formula like scripture.

My first week I was given the following question: is war natural? If I were in the US, I would have begun with a thesis (yes, indeed, war is natural) before making three points to back up my assertion (first, we are evolutionarily hard-wired for conflict, second…etc.). But, for the French, certainty is anathema to a good exposé. Instead, I began by defining war and then moved on to what it means for something to be natural. After a good deal of wrangling (Are we talking about man in the state of nature? Or simply what humans are predisposed to in the modern age?) I moved to part one, where I argued the affirmative, bouncing like a pinball from contract theory to evolutionary biology to history to literature. In the second part, I argued the negative, tossing around this writer and that. Naturally, no consensus emerged. I ended with no clearer an answer than when I had begun. I was forced to conclude that it was impossible to answer the question definitively, and that it really depended on your definitions and how you felt about Hobbes and Rousseau and this and that. Is war natural? Who knows?

The professor seemed satisfied with this response.

I can think of two explanations for this unfamiliar way of approaching the course material. The first is that, unlike the American system, the French system emphasizes ambiguity. Relishes it. In the real world, after all, there are no easy answers, and what seems obvious to one person may strike another as misguided. This kind of philosophy—that truth itself is dynamic and subjective—is distinctly un-American. In the US, the worlds of academia and policy-making both rest on the assumption that there is an optimal answer, that the truth is knowable, and that we should strive toward it, even if we know we will fall short. French educators, on the other hand, would likely identify with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quip that “the sign of a first rate intellect is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind and retain the ability to function.”

The second explanation for the French aversion to argumentation was voiced by my fourteen year-old host brother at the dinner table. “Professors,” he said, “think you’re too young and naïve to have an opinion.”

Who knows?

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