Monday, April 20, 2015

Wendel and Danny in Scotland and Beyond!

How do you write about an intangible idea? You could start internally with how it makes you feel: I felt like I was part of a family I never met. You could talk externally about the people you met: they were diverse, caring, trusting, and eternally optimistic. You could also describe the experiences that occurred: hiking, bungee jumping, St. Patrick’s Days, etc. Even with all these descriptions you would miss the fleeting moment/idea that I feel embodies what study abroad is about. These moments can’t be captured in a Facebook post, Snapchat, Instagram, or video. You try to give the feeling to others who can’t experience through blogs, postcards, or letters. However you know inside that the memories you have are the only traces left to accurately embody it. With that being said take this post as a humble offer from a family member you are meeting for the first time. Reading through some of the previous blogs I feel honored to be included in a group of adventurous people.  

My study abroad experience has gone through so many phases in my short time. Arriving in Glasgow, Scotland with my dragon Danny, we were very overwhelmed. The Glaswegian accent is quite thick. Every conversation was like a blind date. I never really knew if a person was genuinely nice or putting on a façade. I can safely say now that almost everyone is genuinely nice and wants to help you. Additionally completing simple task felt like a chore requiring much effort. From simple things such as buying bedding sheets to ordering a meal, I was constantly challenged. It’s crazy how missing one or two words can completely lose the substance of a sentence. 

As I progressed I quickly became comfortable. And this sense of family began to take shape. The easiest way to describe this is through the lifestyle emphasis. In most situations the US tends to stratify people increasing the power-distance. The US is like a hotel and the UK/Europe is a mall. The penthouse of a hotel is the best, nicest room. It is physically at the top of the hotel and financially only people who are in the top tax bracket can afford.  Therefore only people with a lot of power (money) can get into the penthouse.  The mall is not equally divided, but there is much less distinction between the rooms. So this brings us back to the family feeling. Every time except one, in Dublin, I have stayed in someone else’s residence.  I love staying at bed and breakfasts (B&B).  My first B&B was at Fort Williams in Scotland. Our host Ann was very accommodating. My roommate and I, whom I traveled with, talked at length with here during breakfast each morning and learned much about the Fort Williams area. 

Cold winter mornings at the B&B

Currently I just returned from spring break. If Megabus had frequent rider miles I would be in the platinum club! I traveled to London, Paris, and Barcelona. London was quite expensive and overrated in my opinion, I prefer Glasgow if you are going to endure bad weather. However Paris and Barcelona more than lived up to their hype!!

Danny made a new friend!

 I was even lucky enough to experience Holi in Barcelona. If you are an arts major I feel you should be required to visit both cities! The Louvre Museum is so huge and contains a lot of history, and Barcelona is a living tutorial of how you should design any large scale project. In both cities I met amazing people who had such a different perspective on life. I was quite jealous of how they could be so satisfied with much less than I am accustomed to. 

That's my "I barely survived Holi" smile

My highlight of spring break was the Saturday in Barcelona where I spent the day on a bike tour and the evening having a rooftop tapas dinner.

Planning my return to Barcelona

It was a great time to reflect on my time and how fortunate I was to be abroad. That night on the rooftop, I was almost able to capture that intangible idea. It came up in a conversation with the hostess of the dinner. Looking out at Montjuic I told her how different our perspective of tonight was. It was my last night in Barcelona and was quite jealous that she could come up every day. She smiled, then looked at me and said “We don’t do this often, plus during this time of year it gets really cold at night.” 

Wendel Ridley
University of Strathclyde
Glasgow, Scotland
United Kingdom

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Sequoia and Cassie in Northern Ireland and Beyond!

“Holi”Days Around the World!

As I’m sitting here thinking about the last three months, I am just amazed at some of the things I have done and seen. I don’t have any crazy ridiculous study abroad stories but my experiences have been more observatory. There have been a handful of times that I have to stop what I’m doing and remind myself how blessed and thankful I am to be studying abroad. All of my family members ask me what I have done and I hesitate because I have no idea where to start! I did not know what to expect before arriving to Northern Ireland except for cold weather and Guinness (which tastes like dirt to me, sorry). The culture in the United Kingdom (UK) is not drastically different from the US but the lifestyle is much more relaxed which I admire. In the US, time is everything and we are such a fast-paced country that sometimes we forget to take a minute to appreciate the beauty around us. The University of Ulster (or “Uni” as students here call it) is situated in the city Coleraine and it is basically miles of green rolling hills and sheep….lots of sheep!! This environment is such a change for me because I have only gone to schools in the city. I appreciate being at Ulster because it forces me to go out and find my own fun since there is very little on campus to do. It put me out of comfort zone a little but once I left campus, that’s when the adventure began. 

I decided to focus on the holidays I have celebrated and where I celebrated them. I’ll begin with my travels to Glasgow, Scotland for Valentine’s Day. I was so excited to go to my second country! I immediately noticed how busy it was in Glasgow compared to Coleraine and it felt nice to get out of the country (even though I had only been there for a few weeks). To me Glasgow is similar to Belfast in that the city has a lot of things to entertain you but also at the same time, you do not have to go far to get out of the city. I took a day tour (roughly 8 hours) of the Coast of Ayr and it was only about an hours drive from the city but we were taken to see the beautiful waters on the coast and a small town that wasn’t far. I’ve been to Coleraine, Derry/LondonDerry, Belfast, and London but I can say Glasgow has been my favorite UK city. 
Cassie on the Coast of Ayr

Next up is Saint Patrick’s Day in Dublin. I’ll start off with the nice things about Dublin first. I really enjoyed the Saint Patrick’s Day parade and the floats that were displayed were very interesting. It was nice to be in the Dublin on that day and to celebrate with everyone else, even though some people had more of an appreciation than I did. I never imagined myself in Dublin for Saint Patrick’s Day and I just enjoyed being in the moment and taking lots of pictures. Now for the bad…which isn’t terrible but it made the visit less enjoyable. Dublin did not offer me much more than the Saint Patrick’s Day events! Maybe I should have looked around for more things to do but I was only there for a few days but it was overrated to me! I apologize (not really) to anyone who likes Dublin but it wasn’t very enjoyable for me. Fortunately, my adventures after Dublin get much better!

Wearing my green on St. Patrick's Day
I had the amazing opportunity to go to Europe, specifically Paris and Barcelona but I’ll start with Paris. I took the bus from London to Paris (which was like 8 hours or so) and although I did not get much sleep on the bus, I cannot describe how I felt when I first learned that we arrived in France on Easter Sunday. Paris was everything that I imagined it to be from the food to the romance to the museums. There was nothing overrated about carelessly strolling along La Seine, looking at the amazing art in Le Louvre, visiting the chocolate shops on Saint-Germain street, putting an endearing lock on the famous lock bridge, and standing under the Eiffel Tower. I stayed in Paris at my first bed and breakfast (B&B) for about two days and it was the perfect time to discover everything Paris had to offer. 

Love lock on a Paris bridge

"Holding" the Eiffel Tower
Now (drum roll)… it’s time for Barcelona! Barcelona has my heart and I’ve declared it my favorite city. My first day in Barcelona I was exhausted from traveling for almost 14 hours via bus and I pretty much slept the entire day. The days following were full of adventure and eye-opening experiences. I had the pleasure of taking two amazing bicycle tours around the city of Barcelona and I learned so much about the history of the city as well as Gaudi, the architect of the city who created beloved structures such as La Sagrada de Familia (probably the most authentic, detailed building I have ever seen in my life). It was nice to travel through the city on a bicycle and to feel the wind (the weather was beautiful and sunny by the way…I got all my vitamin D back that I had been lacking). The food, the drinks and the people of Barcelona were incredible and I have already given myself a rough timeline of when I want to visit again. Being in Barcelona made me rethink my definition of “luxury”; to have luxury there is to have beautiful weather the majority of the year, to be close to the beach, having non-expensive delicious food (chorizo and cava are my new favorites), being able to bike everywhere, and knowing the importance and value of friendship.  

Rooftop dinner with friends in Barcelona

 My final day in Barcelona I went to Holi which is an Indian festival celebrating the arrival of spring and involves music and powder paint. I was not prepared at all to be covered in powder but I never regret going. The vibe I had during Holi was a mixture of amazement that I was blessed to have the memory of being a crowd of a couple thousand people, everyone is happy, everyone is cheerful and friendly. Studying abroad is supposed to change your view on certain things and I know God allowed me to study abroad for a reason. I have met some great people, tried new foods, traveled to different countries and I am continuously humbled. I came, I conquered, I learned and I have loved *insert cliché heart right here*.

Holi Barcelona

Sequoia Hill
University of Ulster, Coleraine
Northern Ireland
United Kingdom

Monday, April 6, 2015

McKenna and Oz in Australia!

Hey Mates, Oz and I are saying G'Day from across the globe in Australia!

Little Oz and the Australian flag

Meet Oz, my dragon.  Australians refer to their country as Oz sometimes, because is sounds like the abbreviation AUS, and because this gorgeous land is filled with crazy creatures.  Oz and I are at James Cook University in Townsville.  Townsville is the largest city in Tropical North Queensland.  It's never been under 70 degrees while I've been here and the beach is a short bus rid away from pristine coastal beaches.  A short ferry ride away is the beautiful Magnetic Island, and a few hours boat ride away is the spectacular Great Barrier Reef.

In addition to Townsville, Oz and I have seen Sydney and Brisbane: two of the most exciting cities in Australia.  Sydney was a whirlwind filled with rushing people and cars and boats.  The iconic sights, the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, are gems to see.  But experiencing the SydneySider lifestyel is an amazing adventure, too!  Brisbane is an impressive city filled with amazingly beautiful parks and a sparkling river weaving through the bustling city.  For Spring Break, Oz and I are going to visit Fiji, and also seeing Melbourne and Cairns and maybe even New Zealand!

Sydney Harbour with the Harbour Bridge behind the famous Sydney Opera House

Brisbane skyline seen from the boardwalk along the Brisbane River

Australia is full of wonderful, crazy things.  The university is situated in a valley surrounded by beautiful hills perfect for hiking!  A giant mountain called Castle Hill is situated in the middle of Townsville overlooking the entire city and Magnetic Island.  There's a road that goes all the way up to the top, but there's also heaps of different trails and tracks to get a workout while getting to the top.  We took the infamously hard Goat Track just last week.

The view from atop Castle Hill with Magnetic Island in the background.  Candice, Kate, and I conquered the Goat Track

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Mark in Lyon, France!

Bonjour from Lyon, France!

The last three months have been quite a whirlwind, and I can safely say that I wouldn’t have it any other way. Lyon is an absolutely beautiful city; in fact, I think it’s France’s best-kept secret.  For starters, Lyonnais cuisine is arguably the most delectable in the world; and, personally, I can corroborate that assertion.  Of course, French food is not the only reason to stop by Lyon.  The city hosts a number of beautiful cathedrals, monuments, museums, parks, and a charming old town.  Of these attractions, I would definitely mark the Basilique de Fourvière at the top of the list.  This cathedral is undoubtedly the most popular destination in Lyon, and due to its geographic position on top of a hill overlooking the city, it can be seen from just about any street.

View of the Basilique de Fourviere in Lyon

These attractions, however, do not play that significant of a role in my day-to-day life.  Instead, I like to focus on embracing French culture and getting to know other international students in my program.  As some of you may know, there is a program at Lyon 3 University that caters to English-speaking students (the SELF program).  It is through this program that I am able to sharpen my French speaking skills, while simultaneously deepening my understanding of certain topics directly related to my major at UNCG.  For example, this semester I am taking multiple courses on the European Union and comparative law, which has given me a far greater understanding of European politics.

Aside from enjoying French bread and spending time with friends in Lyon, I have been very active in traveling around France.  Fortunately, Lyon is in an ideal situation in terms of travel—I am within hours of Paris, Switzerland, Italy, and Spain.  So, for the sake of this blog post, I will briefly describe some of my favorite trips since January. 

The first trip I embarked on was to Marseille, France’s second city.  Marseille is, in all honesty, a fairly sketchy and dirty city.  For instance, it’s quite easy to walk down the wrong street and end up in a rather bad part of town.  However, the old port, calanques, and Cathedrale de Notre-Dame de la Gare are absolutely beautiful.  For starters, taking the ferry out to some of the islands off of France’s coast is quite an experience.  First, you’ll get to see the island that inspired the Count of Monte Christo, and then you might even to get to catch a glimpse of the famed calanques.  Following our ferry trip, my group went up to the summit of Marseille where the cathedral is almost perfectly placed.  It is from this point that you will see not only a beautiful church, but also some of the best views in Europe.  The sprawling mountains bordering Marseille are unlike anything I had ever seen and contributed to the many picturesque views that seem to occur at nearly every angle.  Of course, nothing can compare to the views seen from this perch at sunset; there’s simply nothing greater than watching the sun disappear over the Mediterranean on a clear night.

In Marseille

Monday, March 30, 2015

Savannah and Leonardo Miguel in Toledo, Spain!

Hey guys, my name is Leonardo Miguel and I am Savannah Smith’s dragon. She, and I are currently studying in Toledo, Spain which is right in the center of the country. Though not well known, it was the religious capital of Spain for a while and was settled by the Catholics, Jews, and Muslims at various times in its history. Where she goes, I go (I even have my own special spot in her purse) and I have gotten to experience so many adventures with her. 

My spot in Savvy's purse.
We’ve been to Madrid more times than I can count and even traveled as far south as Malaga which is on the coast of Spain where Savvy is studying. I’ve experienced long car trips, annoying plane rides, and surprisingly short bus rides. I’ve seen her laugh so hard she cried, and cry so hard that the only thing she could do was sleep. I’ve seen her so frustrated that she almost threw her phone and so excited that if she could have flown, she would be halfway to Australia. But my favorite thing I have seen is how much she has grown. When she first came, she was a shy, quiet girl who had very little confidence and didn’t think to highly of herself. Now, two months later, she is like a new person. She has finally accepted that she is an introvert and knows her limits but also knows how to fiesta. She is more confident than I have ever seen her and is finally discovering what makes Savannah “Savvy” and no one else. And I personally think it is all because she went to a country that doesn’t speak English. 

Climbing in Malaga

I feel like people are afraid to go to a country that speaks a language different than theirs because they will have to experience culture shock AND language shock but I can tell you without a doubt that it’s worth it. Why? Because I’ve seen it. Savvy couldn’t have predicted the changes that would appear in her life from this study abroad experience. When she first got here, she didn’t know if she could do it but now, she doesn’t know what life would be like if she didn’t. Sure, the first few weeks are hard. But they were more than worth it. 

A Prince in a Castle in Malaga

Here’s how she knew:
 "Before I came to Spain, I created a benchmark in my head that would say that I made it, that I was successful in Spain. My benchmark was this: to sit around a table with friends from Spain just hanging out and talking and while feeling completely accepted and at ease with them in their stereotypically closed Spanish group. On Saturday February 21, 2015 my dream became a reality. This night, though I was a sick as a dog and shouldn’t have been out, period, I knew without a doubt that I made it, made it to Spain. All it took was a month of confidence and patience to help my dreams become a reality.
I have two amazing friends from UNCG, one quirky classy gal from England, a slew of friends from Mexico, and other countries from around the world. But I don’t only have international friends, I have friends who have grown up in Spain and go to my University. I finally found a group to call home who opened up and let me into their circle of friends. I have a seat in class to call my own, a group to sit with before class in the hall or the cafeteria, a group to text if I am bored and hear about all the crazy drama going on in Spain. And the coolest thing for me is that I feel comfortable with them. All it took was for me to be really extroverted and put myself out there for them to take notice and let me in."

Lost in a Toledo Dream

I hope that if you are considering studying in a country that doesn’t speak your native language that you do and that this post encourages you to follow your heart and chase your dreams. Savvy had a lot of lessons to learn when she got here and the cool thing is that she is still learning. Each day is an adventure full of possibilities of success or failure. Don’t live life regretting things you didn’t do. Take a chance, make a mistake, and LIVE. 

Leonardo Miguel and Savannah Smith
UCLM Toledo
Toledo, Spain

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Darcie and Hanabi in Japan!

Hello everyone! My name is Darcie Knight and I am a student at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka Japan. Fukuoka is a large city located on the island of Kyushu, Japan's southern island. I am working hard trying to learn Japanese language and culture. My dragon has been learning along with me, her name is 花火 or Hanabi, which means firework in Japanese (it is actually my favorite Japanese word). 

Hanabi studying Japanese.  She is trying her best!

Living in Japan has been fun but it also has its difficulties. Fukuoka is a really good city to live in if you are a student. The cost of living is not as high as other places in Japan and transportation around the city is easy to navigate. There is plenty to see and do in just this one part of Japan. Once I become better at Japanese, I feel like Fukuoka would be a place I could live in again someday. Seinan is a great college to go to. I live in an international dorm with people from all over the world. I have made so many new friends from different countries who same similar passions about Japan. Classes here are also interesting. I take Japanese four times a week and also other cultural classes such as Japanese history, traditional theater and dance, and a class about manga and anime. I am even taking judo, which is super tough but also fun! 

I have managed to go on so many adventures since I came to Japan in January! My first big trip was to Tokyo during a break in February. Tokyo is so different from Fukuoka. It is bigger, more complex, and filled with a lot more people from all over the world, like New York City or Paris. I was overwhelmed with just how many people there! I went to many famous places in Tokyo. I saw the Tokyo sky tree and went to the largest fish markets in Japan (I think it's also one of the largest in the world) to eat real, fresh sushi. 

Sushi at Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

I went to Akihabara twice, since it was one of my number one places to visit in Japan. I am a huge lover of Japanese anime, and Akihabara is the center for it, so I spent hours running around and collecting as much anime merchandise as possible (maybe even a little too much). I also went to Shibuya, which reminded me of Times Square, and visited the imperial palace. Tokyo was an interesting and a fun experience, however, I would never live in such a big and confusing city. I actually prefer Fukuoka. 

My next big adventure was a school trip my college organized for international students and Japanese students to explore the island of Kyushu. I loved this trip because I got to see more of the island that I live and study on. On the trip, we went to a pottery place out in the country and painted our own plates. We went to Yufuin in Oita prefecture, which was near the mountains, and visited the crowded tourist area near a popular lake. I ate ice-cream made from the local limes, which is one of the foods the area is known for, and saw a bakery that was a recreation of the bread shop in the movie Kiki's Delivery Service! We then stayed the night at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, in Kumamoto. I got to wear a yukata and have a really amazing meal with everyone in a very Japanese setting.

Group photo of students from the Kyushu trip wearing yukata at a ryokan in Kumamoto

I also went to an onsen or hot spring for the first time. The onsen was my favorite part, it was surreal sitting in an outdoor spring looking up at mountains. The only thing was I had to be naked in front of a bunch of other women for the first time in my life, but I got over it since onsen is something you just have to experience when coming to Japan. The next day we went back to Oita prefecture and visited an historical town called Hita Mameda Machi, famous for being a government center during the edo period and for producing the Japanese dolls seen on Girls Day. While here, I somehow ended up on the news! I was interviewed while viewing an old exhibit of Japanese dolls, and later while eating lunch, I saw myself on TV for the first time! It was shocking. On the last part of the trip we went to Dazaifu, a famous shrine where people come to pray to do well in school and their studies. I hope being there helped me a little for my future studies in Japan. The Kyushu trip was a great memory for me, not only did I get to see more of the island but I bonded with the other international students and made new Japanese friends that also came on the trip. So far, it has been one of my favorite adventures here in Japan.