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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Just Some Musings Before I Leave the States


The View from Walsh

A year ago, I took a class on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Little did I know that learning about this structure that was put in place to deal with the human rights violations of apartheid would set off a deep interest in the struggles for racial justice there that would lead me to apply to study abroad there. As someone who has taken a class on the civil rights movement in the United States as well, I am drawn to the idea of comparing and contrasting the two, but more importantly, figuring out what lessons can be taken away from both of these significant movements. I chose the University of Western Cape, specifically because as a historically coloured institution, it has been at the forefront of a lot of the movements in South Africa since its inception during the midst of the apartheid era. One of my majors is Justice and Peace Studies, and my concentration is racial justice and I can’t think of a better place to learn more about racial justice.

I find myself looking at pictures of Cape Town to deal with my restlessness. People always mention how excited they are about studying abroad, but they rarely mention how frustrating the anticipation can be. I can’t wait to escape the snow that covers the ground outside and bask in the South African sun instead. Like anyone else who is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, I can’t wait to try new foods, meet new people, and overall just experience a different way of life. I can’t wait, but I certainly have no choice. But for now, I’ll keep spending time with my friends and family. I have to admit, it is jarring to think that I won’t be seeing them in person for five months. At least this makes me appreciate the time I get to spend with them now. I’ve also made it a personal mission of mine to hit up all my favorite restaurants. I have a feeling I will be going through Five Guy’s withdrawal.

Good Bye Snow!!!

Good Bye Snow!!!

Do something each day that scares you. I have a journal that says this boldly on the front cover. The challenge is to do at least one thing a day that makes you nervous, uncomfortable, or scared. I haven’t actually used it…yet. Probably because to be honest, I typically stay in my comfort zone. However, now that I am going abroad to Cape Town, my goal is to keep that phrase in my mind and try things that I normally would not be brave enough to do. As of right now this includes cage shark diving, paragliding, hiking Table Mountain, chilling with African penguins and making sure to engage with my classmates and South African peers. My parents may or may not be okay with some of those items. In all seriousness though, this is my chance to go on adventures, so best believe I will make the most of it. Bye for now. I’m off to get some Five Guy’s fries before it’s too late!

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Brussels Crash Course

I’ve only been in Brussels for about two weeks, but I’ve already eaten chocolate/waffles/Belgian fries in lieu of a true meal more times than I care to admit. But aside from my horrendous dietary choices, there are a few things that I picked up on soon after moving in, so I thought I’d share them with you.

So here you go, The Newbs’ Crash Course to Brussels:

  • Size

Brussels is surprisingly similar to D.C. in the sense that the city is actually really quite small, and everything is very much walkable. Although I’m pretty much covered by the rather extensive public transport system, a walk to the most downtown-y parts of downtown will only take me about 30 minutes.

  • Languages

Belgium has three official languages: French, Dutch, and German. Although Brussels is geographically located in Flanders, the Dutch region of Belgium, French will get you quite a bit farther in Brussels than Dutch will, but you’ll always see road signs and the like in both French and Dutch. Most of the people who live here are multilingual, and it’s not uncommon for someone to know how to speak five, six, or even more languages (English included!).

  • Waffles

Belgium is known for two different types of waffles, “la gaufre de Bruxelles” (“the waffle from Brussels”) and “la gaufre de Liège” (“the waffle from Liège”). The Brussels waffle is fluffier and spongier, is formed in perfect rectangles, and is usually served with a dusting of powdered sugar. The Liège waffle (my favorite) is usually a more irregular shape and is made with nib sugar that caramelizes and forms the most delightful crunchy shell. Pro tip: only the tourists get waffles with all the fixings. A true Belgian gets them plain!

  • Water

For whatever reason, water is fairly expensive in Brussels. Most restaurants don’t serve tap water, and at some, a bottle of water will cost you more than a decent (and larger) glass of beer. Tap water is your wallet’s best friend here, so don’t be surprised if you see someone filling up their water bottle at the sink in a restaurant/pub/fancy opera house bathroom. It’s actually quite common and very acceptable.

Naturally, this doesn’t sum up Brussels in its entirety, but I think that if I had to give an elevator pitch about Brussels, these are the points that would come to my mind first. I’m sure I’ll be learning a lot more things while I’m here though, so stick around and stay tuned!

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Ser vs Estar: to be or not to be in Spain, that is the question

No, this is not going to be a blog post dedicated to explaining the seemingly impossible grammatical rule of when to use ser versus estar. Their similar translation but very different meaning best encapsulates my pre-leaving feeling.

For the non-hispanohablantes (me, until the end of this semester), both verbs mean: to be. A chief difference (although any introductory Spanish class will explain that there are many) is that ser is used for generally accepted permanent adjectives. For example, I would Soy simpatico to mean that I am a generally nice person. Estar is used to mean a specific instance or state of being. For example, to say that I am sick at the moment then I would say Estoy enfermero.

My feelings at this moment are sad. I am currently in a state of being that is sorrowful over all the things that I will miss: friends, family, and my dog. Of course, fomo is real and every party, club, and activity that I am going to miss at Georgetown seems like a net negative in the aggregate.

However, I am also in a state of being of excitement. There are a lot of really awesome opportunities waiting for me in Spain and I can’t wait to experience them.

All of my current emotions are temporary. Soon, I will be in Spain where I can settle down and be able to discuss a more permanent sense of being.

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Coming of Age in Japan

Last week, I celebrated my 20th birthday in Japan. While that may not sound too special an age to many, it is the age of becoming an adult in Japan, bringing along new responsibilities and rights. As of last week, I can now legally sign contracts and pass by the alcohol shelves in stores without awkwardly averting my gaze.

Japanese culture stresses the importance of “coming of age,” recognizing the significance of aging to adulthood. In addition to being the age that confers the right to sign contracts, drink, and other things, 20 used to be the legal age to gain the right to vote (until the law lowered the age to 18 this past year). Even the Japanese language has a special word to mean “20 years old” (hatachi), and local governments and city halls hold lavish events and celebrations for Coming of Age Day – a national public holiday – on the second Monday of every January. Even though my birthday came after the holiday, because it landed within the designated period between April of last year and this April, I was invited to the event held by my city ward’s office at an upscale hotel in the city center.

While the event itself seemed fairly similar to other receptions – speeches by city hall personnel, plenty of free food, and a celebratory toast – the significance of the ceremony made the occasion seem on a whole new level. Girls were dressed up in traditional Japanese kimono, with multitudes of vivid colors to celebrate the occasion, while guys typically wore dark suits and ties. Despite all of the formalities, many of the newly inducted adults celebrated joyfully with friends and family, upholding a long-standing ceremonial tradition.

Yet while these celebrations may still be enjoyed by many across Japan, societal trends have created noticeable challenges for the tradition. Nationwide attendance at these sorts of “coming of age” ceremonies has dropped fairly consistently over at least the past decade, with Japan’s declining birth rate and lower levels of enthusiasm and interest among young adults being cited as reasons for the decline. Modernization and busy lifestyles with students ever so focused on future careers and job hunting prospects have also shifted attention away from cultural traditions and customs, which have slowly begun to lose their significance and meaning in society as older generations continue to age. This trend has only continued to accelerate with younger generations more interested in moving towards large urban cities and away from rural areas, exacerbating a disparity not only between urban and rural, but also across generations with diverging perspectives towards tradition.

Nevertheless, many Japanese traditions have lived on, whether in modern forms adapting to the 21st century, or continuing on close to their original forms due to being passed down from generation to generation. I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend such a traditional ceremony, and I hope these traditions continue for generations to come.


Until the next ceremony!

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Halfway Hall

This Monday, the second years had a big dinner and celebration called “Halfway Hall.” It marks the halfway point in their academic career. Although I am not a second year, this same week marks my halfway point at Oxford. I am halfway through my second term, and that is seriously scary. If anything, my first reaction was to panic a bit. The first term I was just settling in, and let time slip away because a year seemed like quite a long time. Now that my days seem more numbered, I feel more pressure to fulfill my goals of seeing all of Oxford and the United Kingdom, going to every library, making the most of my access to mainland Europe, and soaking up British culture. I truly do love it here, and that might also be why the halfway point seems all the more startling. However, in a strange way it is also comforting. Before I left, all everyone could talk about was how long a year was and how everything would change. So far, that has not been the case; my Georgetown friends are as close as ever, and the time has flown by.

Hilary term has definitely been more serious and work heavy for me. Since I know Oxford well now and have a good routine, I have been immersing myself in finding the little niches of the school and branching out a bit. For example, I have been going to the formal dinners at other colleges on invitation by some of my British friends, and it is cool to see the diversity of the dining halls and students cultures. Also, there are around forty libraries that are open to all undergraduates out of the over one hundred that exist. I have been trying to go to two different ones a week, and it has been very rewarding. It has made me realize libraries are hiding everywhere in Oxford – from the top floor of museums to behind cafes to inside churches… my quest for libraries has taken me to all parts of the town. There is nothing like finally a new library in Oxford, sensing the hush, and walking in and seeing the true scholarship being achieved by people of all ages and backgrounds.

This term I have two essays a week compared to one like last term, as well as decided to start learning French at the Oxford Language Centre (note the spelling of center). Since students cannot study languages unless that is their undergraduate major, the university provides a center with classes as an extracurricular activity that you take for a couple hours a week (no grades) independent of your courses and degree. I have missed taking a language and it has been fun to be in a class so diverse; it includes PhD, undergrad, and masters students studying all sorts of things.

Overall I have definitely found this term to be the most intellectually fulfilling and challenging thus far, and much more enjoyable and productive since I know what I am doing! Some things ahead include my lacrosse team’s varsity match against Cambridge, more travels on my next six-week break, and studying for the LSAT. The Halfway Hall was a reminder of sorts to always appreciate every day, because for me they are numbered.

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