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Part of the Family

Before arriving in Brazil, I had some anxiety about living with a host family, which is pretty understandable. You just arrive at someone’s house whom you have never met and move into not only a room but their life. It is worse than the first day of college because you are the ONLY new person in the house. I also had not lived in a family setting in three years, used to the student lifestyle that consists of odd hours, unhealthy food choices and disorganized desks. My fear was that I wouldn’t be able to adjust back to living with people who weren’t my age. Overall, I was super nervous about the host family thing.

The program here in Rio must have known that we would be nervous when we arrived back in January, or so I thought. We were picked up from the airport and then left at the doorsteps of our new families. No introduction, no background information, no chance to freak out. I both hated and appreciated this tactic.

Riding up the elevator with my two suitcases, tired and disheveled from 12 hours of traveling, I tried to sum up all my energy and Portuguese for this first meeting with my new family. First impressions are everything, you know?


Flash forward to Mother’s Day just this past weekend. After giving my host mom a Mother’s Day card, her and her one year old grandson and I headed out to the metro to meet the extended family for a Sunday lunch. We ate a mix of delicious Brazilian and Indian food (long story). We chatted and watched some sports. We stayed until the sun went down and I decided that it was probably best for me to get home. It was simple. It was chill. It was family time.

Four months after I first walked into my fifth floor Copacabana apartment, I could not imagine living anywhere else or with anyone else. When traveling sometimes on the weekends, I miss being at my house in Rio because it has become a home for me. I feel so loved and relaxed in my building, in my room and with my host mom.

By no means do we have a mother-daughter relationship but more like a cool aunt-niece relationship. I get to play with her grandson when I am feeling homesick for my own little nephew. Sometimes, we even go out in the city to do a hike or hit up some yummy pastry shops. We chat about our days when we are both home but also respect the alone time that each of us needs. She allows me to be independent in my time here, whether it be in the house or exploring the city.

However, I know that I can always count on her to help me out when I am lost or confused. One time, I came home in near tears after searching almost every grocery store for dehydrated mushrooms (again long story). After explaining the situation to her, she stopped what she was working on and started calling family to try to get the intel on where they would sell these dehydrated mushrooms. It was times like those where I felt lucky to have someone here to rely on.

I know that I am one of the lucky ones though. There are of course the host family horror stories that the other exchange students will share. I am very grateful for my host family situation and know that I will always have a home to return to in Rio.

Até Próxima!

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(part of my little home)

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Four Days in Lomé

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Last weekend, five friends and I took a road trip to neighboring Togo. Navigating any transportation system in a foreign country can be confusing but with the working french two of us knew, and the help of some good samaritans, we managed to get in, around, and out of Togo with little trouble. First, we took a tro-tro (min-vans which are the popular mode of transportation in Accra) to Toudou station in downtown Accra at 6am on a Sunday morning. At Toudou station, we were swarmed by several tro-tro mates each hustling to quickly fill up their tro-tro with passengers. The three hour ride to Aflao, the town at the Ghana-Togo border, was smoother than we expected and when it began raining hard about halfway through the trip we were thankful for a sane driver who knew to slow down during a storm.

We spent three nights at a hotel in Lomé that had been highly recommended to us by friends who had visited Togo the week before us. It was owned by a French family and ended up being in a touristy neighborhood with very expensive food. During the four days we spent there, we were the only people of color at the hotel (besides the Togolese waiters and housekeepers of course) and for a second I almost forgot that I was still in West Africa. I was disturbed by how even on the continent, I could be made to feel hyper-aware of my skin color in certain spaces. It was a feeling that I had not experienced since I left the U.S. for Guinea in December. What a wake-up call.

On a lighter note, everything else in Lomé felt homey and reminded me so much of Conakry. The beaches, the palm trees, the motorbikes, the food and the music—it was all familiar. On our first full day in Lomé we soaked up some sun on the 20-minute walk to the Independence Circle and then visited La Grande Marché, the biggest market in Togo. West African markets can already be a bit overwhelming but imagine asking for directions and bargaining in French. “Anyone know how to say Shea butter in French?!” Thankfully, we met a vendor who spoke a bit of English and kindly offered to help us get around.

After a late lunch, we spent the evening on Lomé Beach, conveniently situated across the street from our hotel. We sat on the beach and watched the sunset with two of the Togolese friends we made at the market. They played the drums as we sang and talked until dark.

“Anywhere you go,
New York, Chicago,
Nowhere be like Africa,
Nowhere be like home.”

We spent the rest of our time in Lomé discovering other landmarks and historic streets. One of the main takeaways from this trip and just from living in West Africa for the past semester, is that people truly are resources. If you are lost, confused, or have a question, you need to be comfortable asking and relying on people for help. Not everything can be planned or Googled but things still end up working themselves out. One just has to put faith in strangers and trust that people don’t always need something in return for their help. By the end of our journey, we were grateful for the kind strangers we met along the way and knew we couldn’t have done it alone despite all the planning and googling we had done.

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Brussels or Paris?

This is now the third time that I’ve had a family member call to tell me that they’re “coming to visit me.” And by “coming to visit me,” I really mean “going to Paris and want me to meet them there.” To be fair, my mom did ever so kindly stop by Brussels for about a 24 hour period before we hauled out to Paris, so this is really directed towards my brother and my aunt/cousin (no shade. I still love you guys). Let’s get one thing clear – it’s not me you’re coming to visit, it’s Paris.

But, when I really think about it, it goes a lot like this:

Like I’ve already said, Brussels is tiny. You could clear the most interesting points of Brussels (the Mannekin Pis, Grand Place, The Magritte Museum – if you’re the artsy type) in less than a day. On the other hand, Paris is enormous. By the end of my stay in Europe, I’ll have visited Paris at least four times (once before studying abroad), and I don’t think I could ever run out of things to do in Paris. And maybe it’s because I’m living in Brussels and that I’ve already habituated myself to life here, but I want it to be very clear, that even though I’m complaining about having to spend all my weekends in Paris, I’m really not complaining at all. If someone told me they had three days to spend in Brussels, I’d honestly tell them to maybe look into visiting some of the surrounding towns, like Antwerp, Bruges, or Liège. If someone told me they had three days in Paris, I’d probably wonder how they’re narrowing down their list of things to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I love being here in Brussels, and I don’t for a second regret choosing Belgium over France. However, I do think that the friends I’ve made here both within my program and my housemates play a large role in that. And if I’m being completely honest, if I were able to visit only one French speaking city in Europe, I’m pretty sure I’d pick Paris too.

Conclusion: I don’t really blame my family for picking Paris over Brussels, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to complain.

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“Pardon, monsieur”

Yesterday, I ran into one of the French presidential candidates on the sidewalk. I mean this literally: I was leaving my apartment, looking at my phone as I tried to get Spotify to load, when I accidentally bumped into someone and looked up to see Francois Fillon.

A bit of context: French presidential elections, held every five years, consist of two rounds, one to narrow down a wide field of candidates to two finalists and a second to choose between them. The first round, called the “premier tour,” of the 2017 election was two days ago on Sunday, where the pool of eleven candidates became a race between two, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right nationalist Marine le Pen. The two will face off for the presidency in early May. This election has been one of the most contentious and probably the most historic in all of French history, and it is the first time that France has sent through to the second round two candidates outside of the traditional two-party system. A massive shock to the country’s political system, this election has shown the French people’s desire to overturn the existing structure and reform their parties drastically. The first round also demonstrates a huge divide in political ideology: while Macron is staunchly pro-European Union and favorable towards immigration, le Pen is an islamophobic anti-immigrant populist candidate. The two present two very different visions of the future of France and of the EU.

Before the “premier tour,” results came in, however, the election appeared incredibly close, a four-way race between Macron, le Pen, Melanchon, a far-left anti-globalization candidate, and Fillon, the candidate for the traditional, conservative Republican party (the same party as former president Sarkozy). As the results came in on Friday night, it was unclear who would be passing through to the next round, and once the two winners were confirmed, it was reported that Melanchon and Fillon had been within a percentage of the victory.

All of this background brings me to yesterday afternoon, when casually bumped into one of the most important political figures in France on my way to class. I knew it was Fillon immediately – all of the campaign posters of the candidates had been posted ubiquitously around the city for weeks leading up to the election, so I knew his face well – and froze for a moment, unsure what to say. I quickly apologized, and he just smiled and kept walking. I’ll admit that I turned around several times to look back, still not believing it.

I love politics. They’re the reason why I’m at Georgetown, and one of the main reasons I decided to study abroad at Sciences Po – it’s basically the place to be if you want to become involved in politics in France. And I love being in Paris this semester of all times, because this election will have huge ramifications on the future of Europe and the global community and will be remembered for decades to come. Most of my classes here are political science classes, and I’ve learned so much, but there’s nothing quite like experiencing political change in real time, in the capital city of one of the most important countries in Europe. I’ll be able to say for the rest of my life that I was in Paris for this election, that I saw it all happen, and that I – quite literally – bumped into French politics on every corner.

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Um Dia na Vida (A Day in the Life)

I am just half way through with my time abroad and most Hoyas are already wrapping up the semester. Sad to miss the beloved Georgetown Day but forever grateful to skip out on finals.

To be honest, I was having a bit of a hard time of choosing something to write about for this month’s blog (it seems to be a theme for me). I started thinking about what I would have wanted to know when I decided to study abroad. My main concerns about going abroad weren’t anything big. I pretty much wanted to know what I would be doing everyday, would I be “Georgetown busy” or would I be bored. So I decided to jot an entire day’s activities here at PUC-Rio. “A day in the life” for those future study abroad students who, like me, have no idea what to expect.


7:00 AM – This is always the point of my day where I am the most Georgetown-sick. For the past three years, I have been able to get up 10 minutes before class, get ready and walk over to class on time. Here in Rio, I have to be on public transportation at least an hour before my class. So, I am up two hours before my class eating breakfast that my host mom leaves me, usually bread and fruit like watermelon or caqui.

8:00 AM- I was super lucky in my host family placement. My apartment is right across from the metro station and the bus pickup. It is a pretty happening area, with the motorcycle-taxi stop outside my door, a handful of food stands of cookies, fruits and tapioca and an antiques galeria nearby. For just a two minute walk to the metro, I see a ton of action for 8 o’clock in the morning.img_0112

9:00 AM- My first class of the day is History of the Church 2, which is a lot more lively than it sounds. I am the youngest student in the class by probably twenty years. There is a sweet 80-year old woman with big round glasses who sits next to me in class and another woman doesn’t mind when I whisper questions about words I didn’t understand (a lot!). Definitely something I have not experienced at Georgetown yet. Another first (ashamedly) is that it is my first class with a Jesuit professor!

11:00 AM- Portuguese is the class where I speak the most English in surprisingly. Half the class is from the United States and England while the other half is from a mix of European countries. When the professor isn’t talking, there is a mix of English, French, German and Italian in the room. It is a good class to rest my brain because the focus is on learning Portuguese only, not learning another subject IN Portuguese.

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1:00 PM- Lunch time! There are plenty of options around PUC for lunch, a snack or just a cafezinho. The Bandejão (the cafeteria) isn’t at all like Leo’s. There are a couple line options that change everyday and the ever-present rice and beans. If you are feeling a bit tired of rice and beans, you can head out to these little barracas that sell cheese bread, coxinhas or açai ( featured below ). Many days I opt for the 400ml cup of açai because you only study abroad once!

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3:00 PM- By this point in the day, I’m honestly a little beat and I have two more classes, Publicity and Propaganda and Development of Favela Communities. There are both great classes, that involve a lot of group projects so I’m constantly using my Portuguese and not just listening to it. I really like the variety of classes that I am taking because I get to meet different people from the adult students in Theology to the freshmen in Communications. In Brazil, you take all the same classes with your major so exchange students are lucky to take different classes with a variety of majors.

7:00 PM- I head out of PUC around this time on the Metro Bus. On Thursdays, I get to go home and pass out after the long day but on Tuesdays, I head off to volunteer with a children’s theater group through my local church. It may seem that I am constantly busy but it is only twice a week! The other days you can find me taking full advantage of the beach life in Copacabana.

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If you are interested in learning more about the day in the life of other study abroad students, check OGE’s Snapchat or Youtube account for #TakeoverTuesdays!

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Let’s Talk Politics

Possibly my favorite class I’m taking this semester in Bath is UK Politics and Government. It’s one of the most exciting times to take a course on UK politics, to say the least. For anyone unaware of the current state of affairs in Britain, last summer there was a referendum held to decide whether the UK should leave the European Union. The result of the referendum was in favor of leaving, and since then Britain has gone through a tumultuous political period. David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minster, Scotland is considering independence once more, and now Theresa May has just called for a snap election (which basically means that every Member of Parliament is up for election in June). Most importantly, perhaps, is that Britain is largely in a state of uncertainty about its future. No one is entirely sure what Brexit means for the country, its economy, or its place in the world. Further, there are questions about what this means for other Europeans countries like France, and what this means for the EU as a whole. The future is quite seriously unknown.

With all of these developments, it is quite interesting living in the UK. As an American, I have been asked more than once about our new administration, but these conversations just as often get turned around as Brexit inevitably comes up. I’ve talked to many people who strongly disagree with the result, but I’ve also heard people explain why they voted to leave. In my UK Politics class, every week we realize just how much this decision complicates what we know about British politics and just how many areas of policy and government it already has, and will continue to influence. As an outsider, it’s fascinating to have these conversations. I don’t doubt that I’d enjoy this class pre-Brexit, but there is something about being in this country as it works through the consequences of the decision that makes the issue feel much less foreign. I feel like I am witnessing firsthand what I would never exactly get from a BBC article. Before coming to Britain, I had people ask why I’d come after the Brexit result. However, I believe that I’m learning about the issue in a much more personal way, even in an academic setting. It will be interesting to see how the rest of Brexit unfolds over the months and years to come, and I hope that students don’t see the decision as a deterrent*, but as an opportunity to see the politics of Brexit in action and hear from British residents about their experiences during this time.

 

*note: As a person of color, I was a bit anxious coming because anti-immigrant sentiment is part of the discussions about Brexit, but in my personal experience I have not felt unwelcome in the country, nor in any danger (especially because I am from America, which is a privilege on its own). I do understand that this is a serious source of anxiety for others, however, and would be willing to share my experiences.

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Life in “ISH”

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Before arriving in Ghana, I was given the two options of doing a homestay or living on campus in the International Students’ Hostel, better known as ISH. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between two and understood that each had its pros and cons. I was hesitant about living in ISH because I was afraid that it wouldn’t push me outside of my comfort zone as much as a homestay would. I assumed that most of the other residents would be Americans and thought it counter-productive to travel all the way to Ghana and live with a bunch of Americans. Despite this, I ended up choosing ISH because homestays have their own limitations and I felt that living on campus would be the best way to get involved in campus life and get to know other students.

It would be an understatement to say that living in ISH has informed a significant portion of my experience in Ghana so far, as most of the friends I have made outside of class are ISH residents. I was pleasantly surprised that about half of the residents are not American but are students from other African countries. I’ve gotten the opportunity to meet and have discussions with people from neighboring Togo and Burkina Faso, from Nigeria and Cameroon, and from even as far east as Kenya and South Sudan. I didn’t realize it when I was choosing this housing option, but the diversity here is pretty incredible—-it’s the University’s own little melting pot of cultures and ideas.

That being said, I have also learned more from my American friends who live in ISH than I had expected to. Even though we come from the same country, and sometimes even the same city (there are at least ten other New Yorkers living in ISH!), we all come here with different expectations that have been informing our experiences. For example, some of the most meaningful conversations I have had during my time in Ghana have been with my African-American friends about Pan-Africanism, identity and what coming “back to Africa” means to different people.

From the countless movie nights and sleepovers on stormy nights, to the yelling and shouting that comes from the fourth floor TV room during football matches, to the life that overtakes the hostel during “dumsor” (a popular Ghanian term literally meaning “off and on” that is used to describe power outages) as everyone steps out of their rooms and onto the ISH balconies and stairways to enjoy each other’s company but to also avoid the sudden heat that comes with the ceiling fan being off, ISH has been quite an experience. It has been a wonderful way to experience Ghanian culture all-the-while getting a taste of a host of others and I’m grateful for the conversations and friendships that have come out of living in ISH.

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One More Set of Transatlantic Flights

I am in my final week of my six-week spring break. In that time, I drove throughout Iceland and Ireland, and visited Edinburgh and Sweden before flying home to Chicago. Not very warm places for ‘spring break,’ but I reckoned I wouldn’t be likely to travel to those places again in my life next time I went on a big trip. Basically, I’ve been on the move, and I am at the point where staying in one place too long feels strange. Having these long breaks to travel has made me feel comfortable staying at Oxford over term and saving my traveling for after term! I cannot believe that I am about to start my final eight weeks at Oxford. I am very grateful we had the three terms because otherwise I think I would feel completely overwhelmed trying to acclimate and create lasting relationships in Oxford as well as travel Europe. This way, I was able to do it all and not feel like it was a sprint.

Trinity term is known as being the best term at Oxford because the weather is warm, the English gardens are blooming, and outdoor activities are abundant. For example, we can play croquet on the Pembroke lawns on weekends and go ‘punting’ on the River Thames (re: punting, think a gondola).

For my last terms my goals are to study for the LSAT, spend a lot of time outside, do all the classic ‘Oxford’ things one last time, and really do a final push to invest in my relationships. I’m sure my last post will be much more sappy than this one, but I’m not ready to get into that just yet.

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The Long and Scenic Rail to the Deep North

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A rural town (Tokyo -> Sendai leg)

Over the past month or so, I have spent upwards of 100 hours on trains, buses, and planes, including several 6-7 hour-long train journeys north as part of a series of long-distance rides I took with a friend as we slowly made our way to Hokkaido, the northern most prefecture of Japan. Gazing out train windows at the diverse scenes passing by, I felt compelled to reflect on a few of the wonders (and not-so-wonderful aspects) of trains of Japan.

First off, above-ground train rides in Japan are fairly scenic. Whether on trains passing through the rural countryside, or on Tokyo’s Yamanote line which circles the metropolitan area, outside views always offer interesting sights. From city billboards and high-rise buildings/towers, to small residential neighborhoods, to farmland, to the natural beauty of mountains, hills, and lakes, a glance outside provides some insight into the diverse parts and regions of Japan.

I took a bunch of pictures of areas along my train journey, and each photo offers a small glimpse into the worlds of the different areas of Japan. One of the main reasons I opted to take the long way north with local trains as opposed to the bullet train was the extra time that I got to take in these scenes from various areas, with the comfort to stop and get a taste of the local atmosphere everywhere we went.

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Snowy crossroads (Sendai -> Aomori leg)

Trains are also quite convenient. Within the city, the Tokyo Metro offers around a dozen underground subway lines, and in addition to quite a few private railway companies, getting from place to place is fast and reliable. Stations and train interiors are pretty much always super clean, and unspoken courtesy rules for riders (such as staying quiet on the train, no phone calls, no eating) make the ride tolerable and comfortable. Since trains are also very rarely late (for both arrivals and departures), looking up posted timetables makes planning trips or timing a commute a breeze – Google Maps ends up being super accurate. Comfort-wise: overhead luggage racks, soft seats, and heaters that run from under your seat make even the longest of journeys bearable.

However, the attractive pros of public transportation create a con from its popularity. Many Japanese people who live in urban areas don’t own cars, choosing to instead rely on public transportation to commute to work/school and get around. With Tokyo being a heavily densely populated city, peak hours on trains can get pretty crazy. Images and videos of crowded Tokyo trains have been surfacing on the internet for years, depicting dedicated employees working hard to push riders onto over-packed trains. While I haven’t yet experienced anything that bad, weekday rush hours and weekend evenings have proven to be the most uncomfortable times to try to ride the subway, with very limited personal space available. Luckily, getting on and off trains is fairly orderly: queues form on platforms to board, and when arriving at a station, people close to doors step off to let people behind them off. Any trouble with getting off a train is usually erased with a simple “Sumimasen” (excuse me), as people will shuffle around to make way to let you off.

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Mountains and the sea! (Aomori -> Hokkaido leg)

The convenience of trains also tapers off quickly as you move away from urban centers. Many of the trains I took to travel north only ran a couple of times a day, and with many of my transfers either being less than 10 minutes long or more than 30 minutes long, the transition between each part of the journey felt either stressful (with one transfer needing us to run through a fairly large and crowded station), or overly boring (giving us nothing to do but sit around at a station in the middle of nowhere to wait for the next train). Nevertheless, planning such a trip to be as efficient as possible is still very easy with all train timetables available online, though due to limited options and infrequent trains, experiencing such transfers is inevitable.

Overall, I’d have to say that transportation in Japan is an improvement over the systems I’m familiar with in the U.S. Reliability, comfort, safety, and consistency play important roles, and while train culture may take a bit of getting used to here, it’s worthwhile in the end to appreciate the uniqueness that the Japanese public transportation system has to offer. Now that I’m totally (not really) a seasoned expert on train riding in Japan, I’m more than ready to face the countless more hours on trains I’ll continue experiencing in the coming months.

それでは、また次の旅!

Until the next journey!

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Biking in Bruges

Last weekend I took a day trip with my program up to Bruges, which is located up North in the Dutch speaking region of Flanders. Although it was only about an hour long train ride from Brussels, it truly felt like I was in a different country. Brussels is bilingual by law, but it’s a de facto francophone city. And while the country of Belgium is officially bilingual, there is a distinct linguistic divide between Dutch speaking Flanders and French speaking Wallonia, and as far as foreign languages go, English is preferred in Flanders over French.

Bruges itself is very much a picture perfect old European city, with its canals, old churches, and cobblestones roads. That said, it’s also very much a tourist city. Everywhere you go, you’ll run into large groups of tourists (my program included) on a guided tour of the town. It was a beautiful, quaint city, but I couldn’t help but feel like all of the tourists took away from that quaintness. I think the true beauty of the region was found when we left the city.

We went on a three hour long bike tour from the heart of Bruges to a neighboring city, Damme. The bike ride itself was about three hours long, and although the weather was less than agreeable (rainy and windy, characteristic of Belgium as a whole), it was this ride that made the entire trip worth it. There was something about flying down country back roads on a bike that brought me right back to my childhood. I grew up an army brat, and one of the places I called home was Fort Riley, Kansas. For a year, I practically lived on my bike, passing by farms and fields with my brother. As the country landscape blurred by in Bruges, I was suddenly hit by an overwhelming sense of nostalgia for something I haven’t thought about in years. Be it the smell of country air or the feeling of flying on two wheels, I just wasn’t expecting to find something so familiar so far away.
Brussels is such a lively, fun city, but sometimes you just gotta get out :)

Windmills in Bruges

Windmills in Bruges!

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