Friday, March 24, 2017

Katrina in Dublin

Hello and welcome to the lovely and historical city of Dublin located near the east coast of Ireland! My name is Katrina Sutton and what I thought would be a trip to learn about my ancestry became a liberating experience learning about the true differences between cultures. Arriving in Dublin, I was greeted by the University College Dublin crew to get us on buses to the university and settled into our apartments. Once settled in, my American friends and I explored city centre Dublin (what we refer to as downtown or uptown) and I was greeted by a massive, bustling, and crowded city. I have never been to New York, but Dublin, to me, felt like an Irish version of New York City with all of the business men and women going to work, the college students hurrying to the nearest coffee shop to get in their studies, and the mothers and fathers picking up their daily groceries. My friends and I ate at a traditional Irish pub and my first meal was a toastie and chips (sandwich and fries) and, to get into the spirit of things, I ordered a famous Guinness and it was delightful.

I found a mural on campus. This represents the science department.
The next few months gave me a million different experiences I never would have be exposed to had I not travelled to Dublin. I took a student-led tour of the Dark Hedges, Giant’s Causeway, and the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge, all of which are located in the Northern part of Northern Ireland. On the tour, I ran into a student from Singapore who told me a lot about her experiences growing up there and how different the economy was from the United States. The most rewarding part of the conversation was the realization that my culture did have an influence on the world. This opened my eyes to how drastic the United States could affect other countries and how we are not exposed at all to these cultures that we are directly affecting. It made me have insight as a person to become more curious about learning the other student’s home countries a lot more than I already was. On the tour, Tori and I laughed our butts off trying not to fall down the rocks of Giant’s Causeway, saw the beautiful country land, posed as a boy band with some students from India, and were blown away by the intense mythology and history of these places.

 My Singapore friend and I are BLOWN away by Giant’s Causeway.
The Women’s March in Dublin was one of the biggest displays of unity among people that I had ever seen. Men and women of all different ages, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, nationalities, and disabilities. Everyone was chanting, holding up signs, hugging, laughing, and smiling. It was extremely moving to be in the middle of this crowd and hearing speeches from people of all different walks of life. I left the march with tears in my eyes and a newfound respect for the people of Dublin fighting for equal rights.
The people of Dublin have a more liberal approach to social issues while the rest of Ireland has a more conservative view.
One of the most striking signs of the Women’s March.

In my three Irish classes, I’ve learned so much about Irish history, contemporary issues, the language, and how the culture was shaped into being what it is today. I learned that “the troubles” were more than just Protestants vs. Catholics and that it was this fight for freedom that had been implemented in society for centuries when Ireland was under English rule. I discovered that a small percentage of Ireland still speaks fluent Irish and that there is a current movement to keep that national language alive. There are also movements in the community of women where many are fighting to repeal the 8th amendment. This amendment dictates that it is against the law for a woman to get an abortion in the country, and many individuals are now fighting that law and one of the biggest protests I witnessed for the movement was in the Women’s March.

 This is Dublin Castle which extended to the famous garden and library.
I also explored Saint Patrick’s Cathedral!
What I knew of Ireland wasn’t at all what I came to discover about it. This was a country of nationalism, rebellion against the monarchy, pride, acceptance, unity among all individuals, and most important community. I created a family here that will live on past my short visit and I will never forget the lessons I learned and the people I have met.

Katrina Sutton
University College Dublin
Spring 2017

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Katie in beautiful Malta!


My name is Katie, and I am currently studying abroad in Malta.

Malta is a tiny island of about 200 square miles located in the Mediterranean Sea, almost directly south of Sicily. And yes, it is its own country. Despite Malta’s small size, it is one of the most densely populated countries in Europe with a population of about 420,000. Living with this many people packed together is quite different from living in North Carolina. While the national language is Maltese, the official languages are both English and Maltese. This makes is quite easy to communicate and get around. The only things that don’t have at least some English on them are food labels.
Valletta Street: The capital of Malta, Valletta, decorated and crowded for the Feast of St. Paul's Shipwreck

I am studying at the University of Malta (the only university on the island) and am in the Dance Studies Course. I am here to take dance classes at the university, which makes my experience a bit unique. I am in class from 9 am to 4 pm Monday through Friday. In the mornings we have technique classes, and in the afternoon we have theory classes. Even with long class time, I still have as much reading as someone with ‘normal’ classes.

Gateway building: A building on the university campus on the first day of classes

Registering for classes at the University of Malta is very different than UNCG. Here you do not register for classes until after the first week. You get to sample different lectures, and then actually register during the second week of classes. This way you know you will be taking classes you enjoy, and you don’t have to stare at your computer screen until 12:01 and hurry to type in your CRNs.

Life on an island is very different from living in the states. Everything is very close, but it can still be difficult to get somewhere. To me, Malta is one big city on a rock in the middle of the ocean. There are always people around, and you can always get where you want to go, but it’s going to take a while. It is awesome to always have water near by! I have learned that no matter where you are, if you go downhill you will eventually reach the coast.

Gzira Boats: Boats docked in one of Malta's many inlets

I was excited when I first arrived in Malta, but was faced with many challenges too. Luckily, I have a friend from UNCG who is studying here with me, so we are able to conquer the obstacles together. After my 38 hours of travel to arrive on the island, we took a taxi to our hotel. And that taxi ride was probably the craziest ride I have ever been on! Maltese drive on the left side of the road, which we did not know beforehand. The driving is also just crazy in general. There aren’t really stop signs or lights, you just kind of swerve around other cars. There are a lot of two way streets that only have enough room for one car to fit down, so sometimes you have to backup and try again. But with time you get used to the driving, and learn how to be very aware as a pedestrian.

Bugibba overlook: The view from one of the amazing cliffs located in Bugibba

Along with the crazy driving comes crazy public transportation. For people who are not from Malta there are two options of how to get around: walk or take the bus. People walk a lot, and I walk 20 minutes to class every day. But others prefer the bus. However the buses are usually packed and unreliable. If they show up at all and take the time to actually stop for you, they will probably be late.

Iklin overlook: The view from our balcony showing the closely packed buildings
Other random things I’ve learned while in Malta...
  • You can’t drink the tap water. The internet might say it is okay, but it is not. My friends and I walk to the market on the corner every week to buy a 6 pack of 2 liter bottles of water. Then we have to lug them up two flights of stairs to our apartment, but at least then we have something safe to drink.
  • People here don’t use clothes dryers. Instead, we hang our clothes on a clothesline on our balcony. Which is kind of cool, except you have to wait two days for your clothes to dry.
  • It is funny to see the cultural differences of how people react to the weather. I think the weather here is quite mild for the middle of winter for someone used to a NC winter. We even went to the beach already and waded in the Mediterranean. But the Maltese find it cold.
  • The wind here is pretty insane, so I always have an extra layer or two on me. And bring a scarf for the big wind gusts.
  • One of my favorite things about my study abroad is being surrounded by so many cultures. It is easy to make friends with other international students from all over the world. Most of my classmates and professors are not from Malta either. So this university is a meeting place for many people from all over who have a common interest to come together.
  • Malta is 98% Catholic and the Catholics here love to celebrate with frequent festivals.  Valletta, the capital, hosts numerous festivals throughout the year celebrating many religious holidays.  So far we have participated in celebrating the Shipwreck of St. Paul (who brought religion to the island) and Karnival. For only being here a few short weeks in the quieter Festa season, I can only imagine what prime time would be!

St. George's Bay: St. George's Bay is one of the few sandy beaches on the island. Most of the are just rock.

I have only been here for a little over a month, and still have four more to go, but I have already had many wonderful and crazy experiences. Living in a new culture will bring many unexpected obstacles, but the unique opportunities and the new experiences will outweigh the struggles. I am honored that I have the opportunity to study in Malta, and am so excited for the rest of my time here!

Katie Allison
University of Malta
Spring 2017

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Deijah in England

Hello everyone! I’m Deijah and I’m having a fantastic time studying in England at Keele University!
Arriving in England was no problem at all even though the flight was quite long. Students from the university came to greet a group of us and we took the coach to Keele. I quickly learned how out of shape I was when it came time to bring my suitcases up to my room; top floor, four flights of stairs, and down the hall I was a bit out of breath to say the least! Luckily there were people to assist us with our bags which was very kind and helpful in the end. And although the trips up the stairs are not the greatest, the view makes it all worth it; I get free football games outside my window every weekend since I’m overlooking the great big field lined with gorgeous trees.

A sunset view right outside my window. Wouldn't have it any other way
Going to classes soon after proved interesting as well; all my classes are luckily in the same building, but the building has multiple sections and I had to quickly learn that there is a difference between the ground floor and the first floor…However, there were always people around to help direct you to the general area you needed to be in which was a relief.
Classes themselves are structured much differently than at UNCG; my classes are held once or twice a week for 1-2 hours, but primarily I do a lot of work and studying on my own. There are days when I have so much time outside of class but its set-up that way so students have ample time to get in study and work hours; it took some getting used to since back at UNCG I would be in classes for most of the day, and time management has been something I really had to learn while I’m here.
A little bit about Keele itself: technically Keele University is in Staffordshire but it’s named after a village (Keele Village) which is neat. The campus itself is like its own small village with close-knit communities of students from all over the world, its own little stores, chapel, library and more! Not to mention size-wise, Keele is quite large, with great fields of green stretching across the landscape on part of the campus which allows for breathtaking views of the surrounding forest as well.

The rolling hills behind Keele Hall! Just look at all that green

The Potteries district that Keele is in contains other forest and woods like areas, with a variety of places to go hiking, walking, jogging, or just to see a nice view. At the same time, there are a good number of shops and stores that are just a short bus ride away to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stoke-on-Trent, and Hanley! The architecture in many of the areas provides a view of both old and new styles as well, so even when you just want to go out and window shop, you can simultaneously get a glimpse of the artwork that is the buildings themselves.

Traveling a bit of a ways away from Keele isn’t hard either, and I’ve had some amazing trips with friends that were only a few hours away by train (can I just say we should consider trains for the states, they’re so quick and easy to use not to mention it’s way less expensive than flying!) One of the trips I went on was to Nottingham, about an hour and a half by train. The name might sound familiar, for it was in Nottingham where the Robin Hood legend stems as well as where Nottingham Castle stands tall and beautiful to this day! Exploring the castle was an experience (and a lot of walking) with the interior revamped into a museum showcasing relics of the castle, exhibits about Robin Hood, Leonardo Da Vinci art exhibitions, and interactive artworks.
Posing at the Robin Hood statue with friends!
Overlooking Nottingham while atop Nottingham Castle! So much nature even in the city itself!

Subjectively, the best part of the castle wasn’t on the outside though, it was what exists underneath that proved most exciting! A network of tunnels travelers and traders used hundreds of years ago, but also the same network that allowed for the invasion of the castle on part of untrustworthy servants. Walking in the same footsteps of so many important people of the past is something I’ll never forget, even though there was the occasional trip or slip from the uneven sandstone surface, resulting in a few embarrassing moments! I would love to come back to the city but primarily the castle, because in a few years they plan to close the underneath for a while to open a part of the tunnels that has yet to be explored! No one knows what could exist behind the sealed stone walls….
What is beyond the closed off section underneath the castle?
The castle is so big, you can't get it all in one photo!

And if you’re an English major like me or a Shakespeare buff, a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon is a must! In the center of town is Shakespeare’s house, where you can take a tour of the different sections of the houses and a museum exhibition about Shakespeare, his works, and the history of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare’s house is quite beautiful and impeccably maintained, allowing you to see what it would have looked to live well-off in the town hundreds of years past. The actors in the house were there to provide not only information regarding Shakespeare’s life and historical significance, but also to perform any part of Shakespeare’s works that they knew; one actor performed a scene from Romeo and Juliet quite flawlessly without any set-up for the scene at all!

 Overlooking Shakespeare’s house in the ground’s gardens.

The area is beautiful even when the weather is a bit dreary; the town has parks a little way away from the center with the cutest geese, seagulls and pigeons along with beautiful swans who very much love when people feed them.
 The river that cuts through the town is lined with boats that double as restaurants, the Royal Shakespeare Company offers several plays to see and exhibits of costumes and props, and not too far down the way is the town’s very own butterfly museum which is enjoyable for all ages, and breath-taking if you love butterflies and insects of all shapes and sizes.

 Gorgeous moths bigger than my hand!

I don’t want to get too long-winded but there are so many things I want to share about this amazing time I’ve had studying abroad so far! To be honest I was terrified of studying abroad at first since I had never been out of the country, let alone outside the country all on my own! But now, looking at all the experiences I’ve had so far and thinking about all the people I’ve met, I’m so glad I have the opportunity to be here (and I actually wish I could stay a bit longer). It’s okay to be frightened at first but you should never let your fears stop you from travelling; the world is huge and being able to catch a glimpse of places outside of your home while at university is even different than if you just traveled when you have free time. You meet people with so many different perspectives and stories to share, all invaluable and unforgettable to the experience.
Studying abroad in England was a fantastic decision, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Hopefully you will study abroad too, and write about all sorts of adventures!

Be the Shakespeare of this Century!

Deijah Scales

Keele University

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Hannah in Oulu!

When I was planning my opportunity to studying abroad I never dreamed that  I would end up in Finland. Finland, as I have discovered, is a beautiful place with long summers and short winters, enough saunas for every 2.5 people, and more reindeer than people in the northern Lapland area. If I had to describe this place, I would say it reminds me of my home in Canada with narrow trees , thousands of lakes, friendly people, same Northern sky, and similar climate.
Rantakatu, Oulu, Finland
I watched a game of the local hockey team the Oulu Kärpät.

My experience studying abroad has been outstanding and filled with so many fabulous opportunities to learn about a different culture.  The city I’m living in is called Oulu. It is the 5th largest city in Finland and has about 250,000 people in the metropolitan area. The city itself is located about an 8 hour drive north from Helsinki and is only a 1.5 hour drive from the Swedish border.  Each year the city hosts an event called the Air Guitar World Championships and yes, it looks just as fun as it sounds. The event draws competitors from Canada, USA, UK, Russia, Finland, Japan, France, Germany, and Taiwan. I chose to attend and enjoyed watching it because of the ideology of promoting world peace if everyone were to hold an air guitar. ‘According to the ideology of the Air Guitar, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.’
 Air Guitar World Champion Matt "Aristotle" Burns from USA

Syöte National Park, Finland
The University I attend is called Oulun Yliopisto, or Oulu University. It is one large interconnected building which makes it easy to go get lunch or to another class without having to go home. Now, going home for me hasn’t been an inconvenience since I live right across the university, but I do enjoy getting lunch on campus since it is only 2.60e for a buffet style meal. I am enjoying university life because the programme or major I am studying here is Scandinavian Studies.  These classes have been particularly interesting because of the topic.  I have learned much about Scandinavian history such as the influence of vikings  and trade in Finland.
The International Food Festival that included trying delicious food and dancing!

Ramberg Beach, Norway

Most of my classes at the university only require one end of the semester essay or exam.  This gives me a lot of free time and you are probably thinking ‘What do you do in Oulu when you’re not in class or travelling?’ Well, there are always events sponsored by various organizations associated with the University like ESN (Erasmus Student Network), and NISO (Network of International Students Oulu). I have been entertaining myself by playing volleyball on Saturdays and Ultimate Frisbee on Mondays. I have made many friends, both Finnish and exchange students, by just showing up to sponsored events like an International Food Festival where I got to try food brought by people from various countries!
Canadians at Lofotr Museum in Norway!

Beautiful view of the Neva River in Saint Petersburg

In the two months I have been here, I have traveled  throughout Finland and taken trips to Norway, Sweden, Estonia, and Russia. The best trip I took was the recent excursion to Saint Petersburg on a visa-free cruise from Helsinki. The city had so many historical buildings, cathedrals, monuments, and parks that I could not visit all of them in the three days I was there. On the first day we took a bus tour throughout the city and our tour guide had us stop at various monuments such as the Admiralty building, the Rostral Columns, and the Monument to Peter I which had the right size head but a body too large for the head! The next day I went to the Hermitage Museum and on a Cathedrals tour. All the buildings were decorated with gold leaf designs and really emphasized the importance of historical figures. On the third day, I went on a walking tour of the city with a couple of friends and a local person who showed us the metro stations. The metro is one of the deepest train systems in the world as it is 86 metres deep due to the geography of Saint Petersburg.  It has some of the most beautifully designed stations and I only had to spend  35 rubles to get into the metro (equivalent to about $0.50). The food in Saint Petersburg was really cheap as well (but very delicious) as I bought soup, rice, chicken, a drink, and dessert for less than $3.
My friend and I having fun in Helsinki.

View from a hill in Old Town, Tallinn, Esto

I know many people have said it, but going on living abroad  is worth it and a life changing experience. I am more involved in social events than ever before, have made lifelong friends, and experienced so many different cultures and countries just by planning a study abroad experience.

Hannah Stacey
University of Oulu

Oulu, Finland

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hayley in Plymouth!

Hi everyone! I’m Hayley, and I’m spending my semester in Plymouth, England.

I don’t even know where to start.

Studying abroad has been one of the best and life-altering decisions I’ve ever made, and it’s only about halfway through the semester. I’ve learned so much about myself, about the world, and about practical things—how to travel cheaply and efficiently, how to cook for myself, and how to overcome homesickness when everything just seems like too much.

 Standing at the place where the Mayflower set sail with my friend Savannah and our friend from Malaysia, Tiffany
I’ll begin with Plymouth itself, since that’s where I’ve been living for nearly 2 months (how has it been that long?). I’ve had the chance to explore the city, which is right on the coast of the English Channel, and learn about the history surrounding it. I even got the chance to stand on the very spot where one of my ancestors boarded the Mayflower. I’ve had the best fish and chips of my life on the harbor, overlooking stunning cliffs and green hills that plummet into the shimmering, cold water below.

Plymouth is an ocean-city, for certain, but it’s nothing like the towns and cities along our beaches in North Carolina. It’s very urban and always bustling with activity. You wouldn’t even know you were near the coast if it weren’t for the steep hills that characterize the streets and yield stunning views of the water in the distance. You walk everywhere in Plymouth, which has definitely kept me in shape. (Well, that and the fact that my dorm in on the seventh floor of my building and there is no elevator…)
"The Hoe," which is an Anglo-Saxon word for "high place," overlooking the Plymouth Sound and English Channel.
It’s incredibly easy to get around in Plymouth, since most places are centered right around Plymouth University’s campus. There’s a Starbucks about 5 minutes walk from my dorm, a cheap clothing store right next to it, and grocery stores are all within a 15min walk radius. I’ve finally gotten used to the “bring your own bag” thing for stores so I don’t have to pay and extra 5 pence every time I go shopping. I’d like to say we should do this in America, since it’s far more sustainable than just freely giving out plastic bags, but for the first couple of weeks I found it incredibly frustrating. Effort—that’s the theme of this blog post. You’ve just got to put in that extra effort.

 I found the Ministry of Magic!

About two weeks after arriving, I took a trip to London with a couple of friends. London was absolutely incredible, and if you’re studying abroad in Europe I highly recommend adding that to your list of places to travel. We booked a cheap (but clean and safe) Airbnb, bought cheap bus tickets, and we were all set. If you stay in London for only a few days, I definitely suggest getting the 16-25 Railcard and just purchasing day tickets for trains at the nearest station. The Railcard gives you discounts on all train travel around the UK, and it saved us a lot of money traveling in London. It took us a day or two to figure out the transportation system, but once we got used to it, it was so incredibly efficient and easy to use—much more organized and less confusing than the New York subway system. We walked all around the city, had the best crepes of our lives, and only got rained on twice.

A street on the Barbican, which is Plymouth's harbor.

When I returned to Plymouth, I admit I found myself rather depressed and downtrodden. Classes here are much different from what I am used to at UNCG, and I really have to work to find ways to keep busy. The excitement of travel had worn off by this time and the homesickness really began to set in—I’m most definitely a homebody, and just after arriving here in England I found out that my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer, so it’s been very hard on me to be away from my family at this time. But about halfway through October, I had the opportunity to go visit Germany to see my brother, who is in the US Air Force.

Germany was magical. The weather was rather cold and rainy, but I was so happy to spend time with family (and get to cuddle with my brother’s dog—I hadn’t pet a dog in a month!) and go on more adventures. We got to buy dirndls (traditional dress for Oktoberfest) and attend Oktoberfest in Sittard; we took a day trip to the beautiful Köln and saw the massive cathedral and the Rhein River; we had a lazy day where we sat wrapped in blankets and watched Star Wars; we took a trip to Amsterdam (yes, it is just as gorgeous as the pictures).

My brother Logan and I enjoying sweets in an Amsterdam bakery.

It was such a fun trip, and I knew that if I was going to keep my spirits up when I had to leave and return to Plymouth, I needed to change my way of thinking.

If you’re planning to study abroad, let me tell you this: homesickness happens to nearly everyone, and in different ways. It’s okay to miss home, to feel sad and feel like you don’t belong in the place you’ve decided to study. I just want to assure you that these feelings will pass, but you really have to make an effort to go out and seize your adventure. When I left Germany, I decided that I would no longer allow my homesickness prevent me from experiencing what this semester has to offer. Since returning to Plymouth about a week ago, I’ve made about twelve new friends and gone out with them 3 times. I am not a huge partier, so this was a step way outside my comfort zone. But you know what I discovered? I actually really enjoy going to clubs and dancing. Who knew?

Prost! (That's me in a dirndl. I discovered that breathing isn't considered a requirement while wearing one.)

The thing is, you just really have to push yourself to grow and to learn. As I mentioned before, I love home and I love UNCG, so this transition has been difficult to me. But I’ve allowed myself to feel anxious about being in an unfamiliar environment, I’ve allowed myself to feel vulnerable and do things I normally wouldn’t have tried, and it’s been incredible. I’m 20 years old and I’ve planned international trips and travel all on my own—trips that have thus far been incredibly successful. I know it seems ridiculously cliché, but you’ve really just got to bite the bullet and step out of your comfort zone. I never really knew what stepping out of my comfort zone meant until I was thrown into this journey with far less guidance than I was used to, and I’m so grateful to have learned and experienced everything I have so far.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Caroline en España

 ¡Hola de Cuenca, España! Cuenca is a tiny little city situated in the mountains of Castilla la Mancha. I live near the Río Júcar, which is always a beautiful blue green color. I have the most gorgeous walk to school every day.  Cuenca is the most beautiful place that I have ever visited and I am so glad that I have been able to call it home. As I have told my friends here and basically anyone who has spoken to me for any period of time, I have fallen completely in love with Cuenca. Cuenca has brought out a different side of me, a Caroline that likes rock climbing, despite her fear of heights. My first day in Cuenca, I visited el Puente de San Pablo, which boasts a spectacular view of the hanging houses of Cuenca. El Puente de San Pablo is 40 meters high, which is about 131 feet. I made it about a quarter of the way across the bride before turning around and rushing back to safety. Within a month of this incident, I went rock climbing on an actual mountain and later on a via ferrata, which is a type of climbing route. If I remember correctly, at one point we were 80 meters high hanging off the side of a mountain. Had anyone told me before I left that I would be hanging out on the side of a mountain hundreds of feet above the ground I would have laughed in your face, but now I can’t wait to go climbing again.

A view of Cuenca from the mountains

Amazing view from the Via Ferrata, I'm trying rally hard not to look down

Rio, Jucar
Another way that I’ve been challenged here in Cuenca is to stay on top of current events in the states. I knew that as a US citizen in another country I would be asked a lot of questions about our politics since they are so widely publicized. Many people have asked my opinion regarding the impending presidential elections, to the point where I have been asked to speak as an American about the presidential elections on a radio program at my university. One thing that has been really interesting for me here in Spain is seeing the US through the eyes of other parts of the world. The group of international students here in Cuenca is surprisingly large. I have met people from all over the world, from Russia to Taiwan to Mexico. There are not many other US citizens studying abroad, so people are usually very interested to hear what I think about the things that are going on in the states right now.

In Madrid with a group of students, we found Minerva!

Cuenca's hanging houses...In the past there wasn't enough space for people to build their houses, so they began to build them on the side of the mountains!

          There have been times when I leave for the night that as soon as people learn that I am an American they immediately make jokes about our love for guns, or ask me if I hate Mexico. Most frequently people ask who I am voting for in the elections. While I love sharing my ideas with my new friends, a few times I have been a little bit ashamed of what is happening at home. One of my friends here told me that when we first met he didn’t think we would be able to be friends ‘since he is Mexican and I am American.’ All in all, it has been a really interesting opportunity to hear outside perspectives about my home, in spite of the gun lugging stereotypes. Of course everyone knows that the media portrayal of the US is exaggerated, but it is really unique to meet people who have only seen the US in that light.

El Puente, de San Pablo

Climbing the Via Ferrata! If you look closely, you can see the fear in my eyes!

           What I have learned in all these discussions of politics is that many people feel similarly towards their own government. My Spanish roommates have made jokes about their lack of government in response to my lamenting US politics (right now Spain has a kind of interim president due to complications with their elections). I fully expected to learn a lot while abroad, but I have learned a lot about politics, gained a new lens through which to view the US, and learned about myself through challenging situations or conversations. One of the most important things I have learned while living in Spain is that it is ok to not be completely in control or to not always know what to expect. Jump out of your comfort zone, try new foods, and talk to strangers. I’m still working on it, but I can’t wait to see what the next two months have in store for me.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Darren in Denmark-"The World's Smallest Big City"

Hej med jer!

Welcome to the land of Scandinavia, where the people are friendly, the alcohol plentiful, and the bikes ubiquitous. Here, in Aarhus (pronounced somewhat like "oar-hoose"), one can exercise in the rich, nearby forests, spend a balmy summer day sailing in the harbor or walking on the beach, pet some deer in the local Dyrehaven, or recess into the vibrant evening night life on the canal. Known fondly as "The World's Smallest Big City," with 1/6th of its inhabitants being students, I could think of no place I would rather have made an exchange abroad. It does not get much better than this.
My past two summers living in D.C. have taught me to hit the ground running, if possible. And so when my flatmates welcomed me with open arms, I didn't waste time. The 45 hours straight I spent awake from my departure in North Carolina were well worth it. Over the next few weeks, I spent every moment possible exploring the city on my new bike (the cars of Denmark), meeting the incoming waves of international students, and bonding with my 15 flatmates. In the two months I've been here, I've cultivated more meaningful relationships than I can keep count of, and have had a type of humility instilled in me only gotten from being exposed to every nationality and culture in Europe. There is so much to discover and learn that I could spend ten exchange semesters abroad and still be left in want. Between trying to learn Danish, practice my Spanish, and pick up bits and pieces of German, all while trying to learn how to cook dishes from all over the world, I'd feel completely overwhelmed if I weren't so invigorated by it all. Studying abroad has proved to be a test of cultural adaptability and resolve on a level I couldn't have anticipated. Nothing really prepares you for stepping out of that plane by yourself. Determination is your greatest ally.

Aarhus, Denmark AroS View

Copenhagen, Denmark
So, what has living in Denmark been like? Liberating. In every possible denotative and connotative sense of the word. I came to Scandinavia as an Environmental Economics student specifically to see the Nordic socio-economic model of living in the flesh. A curious (to us) mixture of free market economics, socialized medicine, and a welfare state, Denmark blurs the lines between that which we oftentimes think of as incompatible in the United States. And let me tell you: For the Danes, it works. Granted, it is far easier to achieve ideological solidarity when you are only a country of 5.4 million people. Danish students receive a non-loan stipend of approximately $820 USD per month if they meet satisfactory requirements for their degree and work a part time job (which they are also paid for). From living in the Sports Kollegiet, I can retell several experiences where one of my flatmates injured themselves and paid nothing to receive proper, timely, and quality medical attention. And do you know what is absolutely nowhere to be found on the streets of Aarhus, even in the darkest hour the night can offer? Homeless people. They have adequate provisions to keep them off the streets; all of them. In return, Danes pay taxes on a rate of 38% all the way up to the extremely rare and highest bracket of 68% on their income, and also experience high taxes on consumer goods (especially ones with sugar in them), making the cost of living quite high. This is partially counteracted with relatively high wages along with a minimum wage of about $20 USD, but nobody is making the case that the Danish people aren't paying for their social and economic benefits in some way. In the end, Denmark, and all of Scandinavia really, have a visibly enormous middle class where most everyone gets to afford some luxuries in life while enjoying a satisfactory and reasonable standard of life (NOT an opulent one). Small wonder Denmark, Norway, and Sweden all make their way to the top of the global indexes for happiest countries on the world. My anecdotal evidence confirms; "hygge" is abundant, and I've met nobody who was dissatisfied with where they are in life. "Hygge," by the way, is an untranslatable word referring to the warm feeling of happiness and contentment found in a cozy place or situation, oftentimes shared with the people you love. Think favorite coffee shop or a night out with friends that turned out so great you could never forget it. This is what it means to be a Dane. My only possible comparative framework comes, of course, from the U.S., and I've spent a long time pondering the differences and have reduced the comparison down this way: What are the goals? If the goals of a country are to emphasis innovation, competition, individuality, and wealth, then its priorities will necessarily align to match these standards of success. But if a country's goals are to champion quality of life, equity, humility, and equality of opportunity, then its priorities will naturally look much different. Both country’s frameworks are saturated to the very core of their respective systems. I would be tempted to say there is no right or wrong choice, and that happiness can be found in each system (which it most certainly can be), but I've looked into the eyes of homeless people in Greensboro and Washington, D.C. and internalized their stories, and I think the situation is more complicated than that. Is this just my opinion? Sure, you could say that. And you'd be right. Yet the same phrase has resounded in my mind over and over since arriving in Denmark: Surely, we can learn something from all of this.

Aarhus, Denmark (Cooking)
Aarhus, Denmark (Beach View)
Studying abroad has also been personally liberating. A friend of mine who was calming me during my pre-study abroad anxiety told me some very important words I needed to hear. "You get to be anyone you want over there. Nobody knows who you are. Who do you want to be?" And that got me thinking a lot about who I wanted to be. As it turned out, given how hard the last couple years have been on me, I needed to leave a lot behind. My exchange semester has brought many experiences and people to my life, but perhaps the most needed thing was the chance to leave it all behind, if only for a little while; to allow myself the opportunity to accentuate the attributes I'm proud of and redefine who I am as an individual. I suppose you can say that's another way of saying "discovering oneself," but I do think there is something unique about being dropped off on a continent where you don't know a single other soul. I'm grateful to my friend for helping me frame the experience properly. Studying abroad can truly be transformative.
Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
Møllestein, Aarhus, Denmark
Transformative, it has been. In two short months, Aarhus has come to feel like home. I've familiarized myself with the city's culture by exploring every inch of it, have toured all of the museums and sites, and have spent afternoons socializing on the beach, having picnics and spontaneous BBQs, and have embraced the Danes' fitness and exercise culture. My studies in my discipline have brought me new understanding and the European perspective I was looking for on a host of environmental issues. I've done a fair bit of sharing and talking about my own culture, but far more listening, observing, and appreciating. And, of course, I've taken advantage of being able to travel so easily since coming here (I'm on a train bound for Stockholm seeing the gorgeous Swedish countryside rush past me as I write this sentence!). Before I return to the States, I'll have seen Berlin, Göteborg, Stockholm, Oslo, the Norwegian fjords, the Northern Lights, Glasgow, Barcelona, Budapest, and Prague. There're still so many places in Europe alone I want to see, especially with all my newfound friends telling me of their lives back home. As I said, the opportunity for discovery is endless.

Brandenburger Tor, Berlin, Germany
Dyrehaven, Aarhus, Denmark
My final message is nothing you haven't heard before. It is cliché, trite, and overstated. But it cannot be overvalued. Studying abroad just may be the most influential and important experience of your life. Don't put it off like I did. Don't be afraid of it like I was. Believe you're strong enough, brave enough, and ready like I did not. If you have the right perspective on what it could mean to you and how it could enrich your life, it will be monumental. There is a time and place, and admittedly a certain beauty, in finding solace in the now; in the comfortable and the familiar. But don't let yourself become caught in the trap of feeling like that time and place sets in after an exhilarating first year of university. The world is far wilder and expansive in all directions, and it's waiting for you to discover it. I can only hope it means as much to you as it has to me.

Göteborg, Sweden
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Aarhus, Denmark (University View)
P.S. Here are two Scandinavian songs that I’ve really enjoyed since coming over here, if you are interested in getting a feel for the pop music scene over here. The first is a Danish artist, and the second, a Norwegian one.