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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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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.


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!”)


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.”


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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La Fábrica del Arte Cubano

“Whatever you do, you HAVE to go to La Fábrica. Kim Kardashian went there,” a friend told me before I left for Cuba. It seemed that everyone on my program had heard of this incredible venue before we arrived, and the fact that it was closed for the first 10 days of our program only added to the intrigue of La Fábrica. Every 5 months or so, the establishment closes for a few weeks to switch around the art and the furniture. La Fábrica, which means “The Factory” in Spanish, is named such because the 3-story cultural center was once a textile factory. Now it is one of the most popular attractions on the entire island, with exhibits showcasing local art and live music every single night. After eagerly anticipating its re-opening night, we finally arrived on February 2nd as its doors opened once more.

A group of friends and I arrived at 8:30pm and waited in line for over an hour. Would it really be worth it? The answer would be a resounding “yes.” After a thorough pat-down and a cover charge of $2, we finally entered the world-renowned venue. Another group of friends who arrived at 10pm that night wouldn’t have the fortune of entering, because La Fábrica was already at capacity. Upon entering, I was greeted by a slew of Cuban art in a variety of exhibits. With a mojito in one hand and a phone camera in the other, I perused the two full floors of Cuban art. Some was extremely abstract – one series of pieces simply depicted various drops of colorful paint on a canvas. Other rooms showcased powerful images of Cubans, celebrating all colors of people – though focusing on Black and Afro-Cuban people. One exhibit was devoted entirely to photos of naked women looking directly into the camera, staring down the male gaze and powerfully daring the viewer to take away her power. One portrait on a lonely wall was an old, shirtless Afro-Cuban man with scraggly white hair and a cane, whose body depicted the diagrams of crowded slave ships.

La Fábrica would have been enough had it just been a nighttime bar and art gallery. However, at 11pm, I was surprised to be escorted to a busy concert hall with an anxious crowd awaiting a band. After ten more minutes of waiting, six band members entered the hall to a chorus of cheers. They played upbeat alternative rock. The room next door had a live jazz band, and we stayed at La Fábrica until they finished their set at 2am. On other nights, we have seen local musicians playing all genres, from salsa to rock to rumba. Every night from Thursday to Sunday, La Fábrica showcases talented local artists, from painters to sculptors to DJs to musicians. People come from all around the world to experience all of this art, paying with just a wait in line and a $2 entrance fee. In my first 5 weeks here, I’ve already been 5 times and I’ve yet to get tired.

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Re-discovering Paris

When you go to Paris, you’re never going for the first time. This city is the subject of so many movies, books, and plays, you know its history no matter where you come from, and you arrive with so many preconceived notions of what the people, the city, and life here will be like. My favorite thing so far about living in Paris is discovering which perceptions are real, and which are absolutely not. Some examples:

First, all Parisian women really are fabulous. You might think it’s impossible for all of the women in an entire city to be incredibly gorgeous and flawless, but I have yet to see a French woman who is not effortlessly chic. It is both intimidating and inspiring, because it pushes me every day to dress way better than I normally would to try to earn their respect.

Second, French people aren’t as rude as they’re made to seem. About a week ago, while walking through the Montparnasse neighborhood after dinner with some friends, we saw a group of French children playing a game of ninja on the street and decided to join in. They didn’t care how good our French was or that we were foreigners, and they thought it was hilarious that a group of twenty-something Americans wanted to play a kid’s game in the middle of the street. That has been my experience almost everywhere: the French accept and respect you if you just try to speak their language, and most of the time they think you’re adorable. PS: French children are really, really good at ninja.

Third, they really do eat cheese all the time, and it is amazing. I have dinner with my host mom three times a week, and after the main course she always brings out salad and a plate of four or five different cheeses from different regions of France, after which she describes each one in detail and has me taste them properly (with a baguette, of course). My first week, she reprimanded me for buying brie from the grocery store because it was too “industrielle.” I have since learned my lesson.

Finally, France is so much more than the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. It is the tiny cafés wedged into cobblestone alleyways, the wrought-iron balconies jutting out from every 19th century apartment building, and the hidden bookstores nestled into narrow lanes. It is the steely gray sky, the cool air, and the sound of street performers playing the accordion on busy corners. Paris has its own rhythm, its very unique personality, unlike anywhere else I have ever been. And every day, it feels more and more like home.

It’s only been a month an a half since I began my semester here, but I have had my mind changed by so many experiences and have seen my perceptions shift each day. I have come to know my Paris, or at least the small section of it that I inhabit, and I am learning and exploring more as I go. I can’t wait to see what else this city has to teach me.

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