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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The Art of Actually Studying Abroad

When you think of study abroad, ironically, the first thing you think of is rarely the actual classwork. Study abroad is an “experience” – it’s living in a new country and learning its customs and language, travelling a ton, meeting new people and making new friends – but it’s also taking five classes in another language and having to learn how to balance all the fun you want to have and your numerous papers, presentations, and midterms. It didn’t take long after settling in at Sciences Po for me to realize that my experience abroad wouldn’t be easy – at this school, the alma mater of almost every single French president, they take themselves quite seriously – and that I would have to buckle down and get to work.

At first, though, I had a problem: I didn’t know where to study. The library Sciences Po is always packed with hardworking undergraduate and masters students, and the cafeteria and seating areas are constantly crowded with groups of friends eating and hanging out, so school wasn’t an option. I tried a few caffès near my apartment, but I felt odd and out of place taking out my computer in such upscale eateries. And I definitely couldn’t work in my room, because there’s nothing worse for procrastination than being adjacent to your bed.

Desperate, I wandered the streets around a main road close to my apartment. Down a winding narrow alleyway, I stumbled upon a small caffè and immediately fell in love. It was filled with light, smelled like freshly baked banana bread, and had the best coffee I have ever had in my life. I sat and studied for an upcoming test for about six hours, and the owner said nothing about the fact that all I had bought was a three euro cappuccino. Since that day, I go back to that caffè several times a week, and now they even know my order. I’ve tried their quiches, a brownie or two, and of course that incredible smelling banana bread (I literally can’t describe how amazing it is). The French can make a mean baguette, but their desserts definitely deserve some recognition too.

One of my favorite parts about studying abroad is that you learn to make a new place your own, and it’s things like this – finding a tiny caffè to study in that makes you feel at home – that change the experience from being an outsider in a foreign country to really living there. I love feeling like I’m any French university student studying for my next test and having my morning cappuccino, and that I’m starting to fit in here, not just studying abroad.

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Britain, Bath, and Beyond

Before leaving for my semester abroad, a number of people asked me where I’d be studying. Many of them asked, why Britain? Isn’t it the same as the US? Then, hearing that I wasn’t going to London, asked, why Bath? What is there to do? I’ll admit that at times I also wondered if I’d get a “real” study abroad experience being in the UK. How much of a difference was there actually between the UK and the US? Plus, I’d be participating in an American study abroad program, living and taking classes solely with students from other US schools and not at a British university. Would I even get to know Britain? And, what’s the point of studying abroad in the UK if you’re not in London? Just over a month into my program, however, I’m happy to report that these myths I had prior to arriving have been dispelled, and I have no regrets about my decision to study in Bath.

First and foremost, the UK is not the US, and while they are similar, I could immediately tell that I was not in America. The British accent was the first real indicator. I’m fairly certain I asked nearly everyone I interacted with my first day here to repeat themselves at least once. And in addition to the accent, there are small differences that I notice on a daily basis. Something as simple as a sign saying “Way Out” rather than “Exit” is enough to make me take note. Beyond these little things, though, I’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot more than I ever knew about Britain through my classes. Three of my four classes focus on various aspects of the UK, from their political systems to their history with the slave trade. Slowly but surely I have gained a better sense of the UK’s history, various cultural aspects, and some of the linguistic differences. And, contrary to popular belief, the sun does come out from time to time!

img_3401 A sunny day in Bath, along the River Avon.

Secondly, Bath is the perfect study abroad site. Without trying to sound incredibly cliché, Bath is not too big and not too small.  I get the perks of undoubtedly being in a city, without the overwhelming feeling of a hustle and bustle city like London. There are plenty of shops and restaurants, perfectly embedded in the beautiful Georgian architecture that makes Bath famous. The Advanced Studies in England (ASE) program houses it students throughout the city, and my own home is just a 10 minute walk from the center of the city in the village of Widcombe, which is itself a quaint corner of Bath that is wonderful to explore.

img_3563 I found Widcombe Manor just up the street from my house.

Bath is also a great home base. Just a 1.5 hour train ride from London and a 10 minute train ride from the city of Bristol, I can easily take a trip into either of these cities on the weekend for more fun activities. As part of the ASE program, I take a one-on-one history tutorial with an Oxford professor, which means that I also get out of Bath and take a train to Oxford once a week. But at the end of the day, it is nice to return to Bath, where I will never run out of new areas to explore nor cafés to fuel my coffee cravings.

Finally, a word about participating in an American program. One of the best parts about the ASE program is that they go above and beyond to ensure that we immerse ourselves in the city. Every week, staff coordinate various outings to the many events going on in Bath. In my time here I’ve gone to an event nearly every week, including attending a Bath rugby match, a poetry night, and a local youth theatre production. On my own I’ve even found a nearby church that I now attend regularly. Additionally, because the ASE program isn’t run through a university in Bath, it pulls professors (or tutors, as we call them) from various British universities like Oxford and Exeter, so I have gotten to know about them and where they come from as well. And while I do live and study with Americans, it is nice to compare stories about those small differences between the US and the UK, and to get to know students who don’t go to Georgetown.

img_2799 My first Bath Rugby match.

Thinking back now to all of those notions I had in my head before coming, I feel sort of silly. Of course I was going to feel like I was in a different country. Of course I’d still get to experience “British culture.” But, the past few weeks of realizing all of this for myself has been a wonderful time–and even sometimes embarrassing, like the first week when I had to ask a cashier for help figuring out which coins to give her. I’m learning so much in Bath and am looking forward to all the learning and adventures that await me in the weeks to come.

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Keeping Up with Katie

I have been spent the past couple weeks trying to think about what to write for the blog. There has been so much that has happened this past month during my Rio study abroad. But none of it is actual studying.

No studying, not because I am too lazy or too busy but because I haven’t had any school for the past month! After my month-long Portuguese bootcamp, I have had over three weeks vacations due to the very famous month long holiday of Carnaval. February in Rio de Janeiro is interesting because every weekend is a build up to the official five days of Carnaval which “ended” this past Wednesday (there are still celebrations going on). Tourists both Brazilian and international fill the city, businesses change hours or close down altogether, streets are blocked off to traffic to allow for the massive amounts of costumed people that attend the blocos all around the city. It was honestly was a little overwhelming for this small-town Michigan girl.

But besides the excitement and chaos that Carnaval brought, my three weeks of vacation have been filled with relaxation and fun. I am proud of the fact that I spent seven consecutive days at the beach. I also played tourist in Rio, exploring its old churches, hiking to the top of the Two Brothers mountains and biking around the beautiful Lagoa on a sunny afternoon.

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My “summer” vacation hasn’t just been about laying at the beach though. I feel that this second month in Rio has been more impactful on both my language skills and cultural adjustment than my first. During my first month, it was about navigating the city, bonding with other international students and fighting off some feelings of being lost and homesick. I am still doing those things but now I am starting connect with the both the language and the culture through my everyday activities and interactions.

I hadn’t spoken much Portuguese my first month here besides in class because all of my social interactions were primarily with other international students. Because class was out and the students dispersed to do their own vacation activities, my conversations started shifting to Portuguese. Whether it be with the bread guy at the supermarket, the manicurist at the salon across the street or the lady sitting next to me on the metro.

Overall, I have found that strangers are way more friendly here than back home. I have formed relationships with my neighbor, my doorman and even the guy I rent my umbrella from. We usually talk about why I am here in Rio, what I like about it and why in the world am I studying Portuguese. People offer suggestions for what to do and see while I am here or teach me new words when I ask. My favorite encounter thus far was with a cute old man named Gerald who told us his life story of moving around Brazil and at the end bought us pasteis (equivalent to delicious fried hot pockets).

The smallest of conversations like these brighten my day as people take time to listen to my slow messed up Portuguese and help me out by sometimes repeating what they’ve already said three times. The patience and willingness to engage in conversation by the people around me has been one of best qualities of the Brazilians around me. I hope to make this a habit when I go back to the States.
That’s just a little snapshot of my past month in Rio! By the next time I write, there will definitely be more “study” in this study abroad:)

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Belgicismes

A “belgicisme” is any word or phrase that’s unique to Belgian French (aka not France French), so here are some of the words and phrases that set the French apart from the Belgians.

Lattes

You could ask for just a latte at a restaurant, but if you want to pass as a Belgian, ask for a “lait russe” or a “Russian milk.”

“Savoir” instead of “pouvoir”

“Pouvoir” is the verb for “to be able,” and it’s what you would usually use if you were asking someone to do something for you. (à la “Can you pass me a plate?”) However, here in Belgium, you would use the verb “savoir” which is “to know.” So much to the ire of my French housemates, you would ask someone “Do you know how to pass me a plate?” (“Of course I know how to pass a plate!”)

GSM

In France, you would call your cell phone a “portable,” but in Belgium, a cell phone is a “GSM,” which is short for “Global System for Mobil Communications.”

“S’il vous plait” instead of “Voilà”

In France, when someone hands you something (change, a receipt, etc.), they’ll say “voilà.” In Brussels, you’ll hear “s’il vous plait,” which as you may know, translates to “please.”

Counting

French has a notoriously frustrating counting system: 70 becomes “sixty-ten,” 71 is “sixty-eleven,” but then 80 is “four-twenty” and 90 is “four-twenty-ten.” Belgian French has thankfully decided that 70 and 90 should have their own words “septante” and “nonante,” but unfortunately still uses “four-twenty” for 80. Sigh.

I live with five Frenchmen/women, so if I’m being completely honest, I spend a lot of my time speaking/hearing/absorbing France French, but it’s still nice to have these Belgicismes in my pocket for a) when I’m out and about in Brussels or b) when I feel like irking my housemates ;)

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The Varsity Match

This past weekend I participated in one of the oldest and most venerated Oxford sporting traditions: the Varsity Match. For every university sports team, the biggest match of the season is the one against Cambridge, usually held in Hilary Term. This intense sporting rivalry extends to every sport, and the highest team one can be on as a player is the Varsity Squad, which plays against Cambridge in their respective sport. If you play in the match against Cambridge, for most sports, you become eligible to receive a “Blue,” the highest sporting honor at Oxford that comes with a ceremony and smart blazer. There is a handful of traditions that go along with this game, one being “Shoe the tabs.” No one really knows why, but the Oxford slogan for beating Cambridge is, “shoeing the tabs,” so chants of “Shoe!” and “Shoe the tabs!” can be heard from among the crowd and players.

This year I have been a part of the Oxford University Mixed Lacrosse team, which is essentially women’s lacrosse played with half women, half men. Being a part of this team has truly been one of my most rewarding experiences at Oxford. There is no better way to feel welcomed into a community and make new friends than being on a team, and I hadn’t realized how much I missed that while at Georgetown. Although we have been training for the last two terms, the big game against Cambridge was last Saturday and the pinnacle moment of our season. Because I am not a fully matriculated student, I was not allowed to play in the Varsity match and be eligible for a Blue, but I became “Coach Cienkus,” and still was incorporated into the fun.

IMG_1377In the end, our team lost the match to Cambridge. However, it was still “good fun” filled with watching other team’s matches at the pitches, eating brownies and sausages (two of British tailgating food), going to a black tie dinner at Robinson College, and meeting my teammates friends and families who came up from London and the surrounding areas to watch. I will have much more time on my hands now that lacrosse is over, but I am so lucky to have experienced an event that few Oxford or Cambridge students even get to! I only have one more week of Hilary term, and then I will be on six weeks of break, traveling to Iceland, Ireland, Sweden, and home to Chicago.

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