Katarina in Verona: All You Need is a Hint of Spontaneity

February 19, 2020

I woke up to the typical Saturday morning rush of diesel engines periodically coasting by one floor below my urban apartment. A faint beam of sunlight streamed through my translucent curtain. Keeping with my new routine, I made a simple breakfast of cereal, stracciatella yogurt, and a cappuccino. My day was overall free except for plans to prendere un caffe with my friend Silver from Italian class.

My phone chimed at around noon with a message. Silver and his cousin had spontaneously decided to visit the famed ancient Roman arena of Verona to take pictures. Perhaps the old version of me would have preferred at least an hour’s notice to plan, but this was not an opportunity to pass up. I had never been inside the Arena di Verona, and I was sure it would have more majestic views than the bustling university coffee shop we had originally planned to visit. Thirty minutes later, the three of us met up downtown at the enormous black iron gates to the arena. Tourists milled about posing with selfie sticks and eagerly shifting angles to capture all 365 degrees of Piazza Bra’s beauty.

I had no way of estimating the immensity of the 2,000-year-old limestone arena until I took my first steps into the dirt ring where gladiators once fought for their lives. I stopped immediately in awe, pivoting in place to admire the view from the center of the ancient stage. It’s hard to imagine that the 30,000 stone seats above me used to accommodate 30,000 people. My friends chuckled at my reaction and asked, “Is this your first time inside the arena?” The answer was probably quite obvious because of my wide-eyed gaze and enormous smile.

Arena di Verona

The next hour was spent alternating who was in front or behind our various cameras. We scaled the steps at least 60 feet up to the top row of the arena. We certainly made a wise decision to visit on a relatively chilly February day. Climbing stairs with a foot-tall gap between each step is really a workout. The ancient Romans must have been incredibly fit. From the top we circled the perimeter taking pictures every time the breathtaking views of the bustling city below changed. Then we descended to the eerie, echoing dungeons where the Roman prisoners once dwelled.

When it was about time to conclude our adventures through the maze of underground hallways, we made yet another spontaneous decision to visit the overlook at Ponte Pietra. I quickly agreed to the trek across town to see the number one place on my Verona bucket list. The walk through the cobblestone streets was beautiful and served as a much-needed break from stairs. Reaching the overlook at Piazzale Castel San Pietro involves climbing about one kilometer of stone steps. Finding our way was easy once we spotted the narrow pedestrian street that transformed into a seemingly never-ending staircase. I was impressed to see residents walking up in unison with us, on their way home to their hillside apartments. About halfway to the top, I was sure that I had found my dream house. It was a pastel peach abode with a barrel tile roof and walls that seamlessly met the stone of the hill.

Dream Hillside House

Everyone was silent when we reached the top, both out of awe at the view and because of the workout we just had. Once again, I was pivoting in place, wide-eyed at the panorama that stretched for miles. Even with the slight afternoon haze obscuring some of the sprawling city, I knew instantly that I was standing at the peak of one of the most beautiful places I had ever witnessed. The effort to get to the top seemed like a minuscule price to pay for the landscape that we towered over. Below us, the swift current of the Adige river snaked through the labyrinth of streets and rooftops. I thanked my friends for showing me this wonderful place and sat down with them to take it all in. We took turns with the cameras once again and began our descent from the hilltop. Even long after I was back in my cozy apartment, the moments spent high above the city that day felt surreal.

Piazzale Castel San Pietro View

 


Katarina in Verona: Playing Tourist, without the Luggage

February 10, 2020

Now that I have settled into my cozy apartment in Verona, allow me to introduce myself. I am a sophomore majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular biology. Aside from learning about the intricacies of cells and chemical reactions, languages also fascinate me. Teach me a few words of any language and I will instantly want to learn more. Given that there is only so much time in college, I chose two languages for my minors: Italian and French. While at Università degli Studi di Verona, I have the once in a lifetime opportunity to explore all three of these subjects while delving into the local culture.

University Neighborhood

Leaving the immense doorway of my apartment and stepping onto the ancient cobblestone streets led to countless adventures as I first explored the city. The first excursion was a not-so-touristy one: a trip to a tiny grocery store nearby called iN’s. I try to avoid going there since it is more expensive than the farther stores, but it is a convenient option. The first time I crossed the azure blue-green river to the historic center of the city was when I really began to explore. Less than five minutes from my apartment and the university I was delighted to find several streets with a wide array of shops and intricate window displays. Every product imaginable could be found there, from the American Disney store to a shop that specializes in Italian espresso machines. I have never seen so many shapes and sizes of caffettere, as espresso machines are known in Italian. No matter how many times I stroll by the archeologists’ cutout in the center of one of the cobblestone pedestrian alleys, the roman ruins excavated beneath still take my breath away. The remnants of ancient civilizations serve as a reminder of the thousands of people that contributed to the rich culture and history of Verona before I arrived.

One of the most intriguing places in Verona, a medieval castle known as Castelvecchio, has now become part of my routine running route. The name literally translates from Italian to “Old Castle,” but I was amazed to find out that this beautiful feat of architecture is nearly 700 years old! Almost any time of day, tourists and locals alike can be spotted walking through its gardens or strolling up and down the majestic bridge. Thanks to my roommates showing me around the castle grounds, I was able to experience the rush of viewing the city from high above the river. On each side of the bridge, there is a narrow staircase carved into the brick walls that leads to a vast overlook. The postcard-worthy view is magical at sunset. Perhaps one day I will delve into the history of this medieval castle and learn about the original purpose of the staircase that has weathered thousands of travelers’ steps. While exploring the tourist areas of the city, I quickly learned that it is common for couples to write their names in permanent marker on bridges in Verona, given that it is the city of love. The Castelvecchio bridge is no exception to this part of the city’s culture.

Castelvecchio

Delving into a lesser known fragment of cultura veronese, locals can be found at many street corners and alleys practicing various forms of art. From painters to singers and dancers, they are everywhere. I have been mesmerized many times at the site of these people openly creating as tourists and locals stroll by. A group of Italian dancers have particularly caught my eye. Every weekend evening, they gather by an abandoned building next to the Verona arena to practice break dancing. The open hallway has a glossy tile floor and shelter from three sides, making it a perfect alcove for dancing. Group members of all ages take turns improvising in a circle to a beat that I can best describe as a fusion between rock and hip-hop. Occasionally, intrigued tourists stop to watch or take videos. There is only one girl in the otherwise diverse group, and she nimbly moves across the floor with confidence. Two weekends in a row, I have seen them grace their street corner stage with their impressive handstands and improvised steps.

Verona Arena at Night

Although I have visited most of the famed tourist spots in the city and a few of the more obscure local sites, I still have so much more to explore. On the top of my list is St. Peter’s hill, the highest viewpoint of the city. Many of my new friends have trekked to the top of the hill before and getting there is no small feat. The one-kilometer long staircase is such a workout that an elevator is available. I imagine the journey to the top is something like walking up a small ski slope, except with stone stairs. Despite the built-in workout, I know it will be fully worth the panorama of the Verona skyline.


Anja in Singapore: Malaysia – Kuala Lumpur

February 7, 2020

This weekend my friends and I decided to go and visit Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. This was a very easy and convenient trip since Malaysia borders Singapore. If you decide to fly, the trip lasts around 1 hour. On the other hand, my friends and I decided to take a bus which was much cheaper but it took around 5 hours (they have very comfy buses, so traveling went pretty well)! We decided to stay 3 nights, which I believe is more than enough to visit all of the important places.

BATU CAVES

Just outside of KL are the spectacular Batu Caves. It is a massive Hindu temple with walls that stretch almost to the sky, with birds flying high above, and wild monkeys running up its rock-faced walls. It is located 13 km north of Kuala Lumpur, so we took a Grab (Malaysia’s version of Uber) and the whole trip was around 20 minutes. There is no fee to enter, however there is a dress code – you need to have your shoulders and knees covered. This definitely was the most tiring day since we needed to climb 272 steps!

Batu Caves with friends

 

Sitting on Stairs

To the left of the stairs is the world’s tallest statue of Lord Murugan (43 meter high), a Hindu god. On the way up we met quite a few monkeys, as there is a whole colony of monkeys living in the caves. Even though it sounds cute, the monkeys are not very friendly! Try not to bring any food to the stairs because there is a high possibility that monkeys are tempted to steal 🙂

THEAN HOU TEMPLE

The famous Thean Hou temple was our next stop. The colorful Chinese Buddhist temple is beautifully located on the top of a hill with awesome views over Kuala Lumpur city. We also got a chance to try fortune telling. Inside of the temple, there is a container filled with a lot of sticks, so you need grab the whole bundle of sticks and drop them back into the container. The stick that sticks out carries your fortune. Even though my year doesn’t look good according to the Chinese fortune telling, it was very nice to experience this culture and tradition.

At the Temple

PETRONAS TOWERS

The must see place on this trip were the Petronas Twin Towers. Standing 452 meters tall, the Petronas Twin Towers retained its world-title claim to fame until 2004 when Taipei’s 101 was built. Because of its location, we also got the chance to explore the city center. This part of the city is sort of different from the rest, it’s very clean, modern and in some parts reminded me of Singapore. Besides the mall and park, the Petronas Twin Towers include other attractions such as the Petronas Art Gallery and Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre. You can also go up in the towers, both to the Observation Deck at the 86th level (360 meters high) and to the Skybridge connecting the two towers at 170 meters above ground. However, we decided not to go because you can get the same good view from roof bars nearby.

Petronas Towers

 

Some other places we visited in Kuala Lumpur include Perdana Botanical Gardens, KL Bird Park, National Mosque Masjid Negara, and Merdeka Square Area where the Sultan Abdul Samad building is located. Even though I’m not the biggest fan of Asian food, I have to say that street food in KL is a great for dinner with your friends. The most famous and biggest street food street in Kuala Lumpur is Jalan Alor in the Bukit Bintang area. It is a lively night market packed with street restaurants and hawker stalls selling food, snacks, and drinks from all over Asia. For those who enjoy night life, KL is known for having one of the best in Malaysia. 


Anja in Singapore: Hello from Singapore!

February 7, 2020

Hi everyone,

My name is Anja Mandic and I am an international student from Serbia. I’m a junior, studying economics and finance at the University of Richmond. However, this semester I decided to go abroad and spend 4 months living and studying at Singapore Management University. One of the most common questions I get here is ‘How did you decide to come so far to Singapore?’ And the answer is pretty simple: I saw this program as a unique opportunity to live in Asia, learn more about different cultures and travel to other Asian countries. In this blog, I’m going to talk about my first couple weeks in Singapore and provide you some information about SMU Campus, courses, and the registration process.

Anja in Singapore

ABOUT SINGAPORE

Singapore is a very small nation located in Southeast Asia between the countries of Malaysia and Indonesia. In Singapore you will find an array of cultures. Singaporeans do speak English and often times other languages such as Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil. The weather in Singapore is both hot and humid and this is the case all year round. The temperatures and humidity levels are quite consistent throughout the day so it does not get cooler in the evening. The public transportation is fantastic! Trains and buses operate very efficiently and follow scheduled times.

Singapore has a well-known reputation of being very safe, extremely clean, sustainable and a technological hub. Singapore is an ideal location to travel from as it is close to other nations and flights tend to be cheaper than residing in other countries! Therefore, you can expect a lot of blogs from other countries I’m planning to travel to during this semester.

SINGAPORE MANAGEMENT UNIVERSITY (SMU)

SMU is conveniently located in downtown Singapore. It is surrounded by museums, restaurants, cafes and malls. It is a relatively new university, having only been established in the year 2000. It is known for being very interactive, collaborative, and project-based in a seminar-style setting with small class sizes. The student life at SMU is lively, having over 160 student groups ranging from sports activities, to the arts and cultural groups. They are very informative with what goes on within the school in terms of extracurricular activities via school email and in-person tabling. The campus itself is very different from UR, starting from the fact that it’s located in the city center and it doesn’t have living residences. Still, the buildings are very beautiful and you’ll enjoy them even on the short walks between classes.

SMU campus

ACCOMODATION

One thing I was very concerned about before applying for SMU was housing. SMU does not offer residences or housing arrangements to exchange students so you will have to figure out your living situation on your own. Thankfully, SMU forms a Facebook group with all incoming exchange students by October. Here, people typically post in search of finding more roommates to share a flat with and potential living spaces. Most people work with an agent (that being said, you’ll have to pay a one-time agent fee that isn’t expensive) that can be found online.
Usually your living situation will include sharing a space with roommates as accommodations can be pricey for one person. The majority of people live in an apartment with a total of 6 people, like I do too. Most apartments also offer weekly cleaning services, a pool, gym, Internet, BBQ, and air conditioning. Apartment situations like this can range anywhere from S$700-1300.

COURSES AND REGISTRATION PROCESS

SMU follows a ‘pedagogical learning style’ with small classroom sizes, and an emphasis on class discussions and participation. Two of my courses are 3-hour blocks once a week and the other two are 1.5-hour blocks twice a week. I would say the coursework is similar to what is expected at the University of Richmond, except they may have a more Asian-centric focus, which I think is beneficial. All my classes have a participation component and all students are expected to have their name tags up. The school structure in terms of classes, midterms, and finals are spread out similarly to UR, so it’s easy to plan travel around that especially because you know when your finals are already.

FOOD

Food in Singapore is relatively cheap as there are food courts called hawker centers with a huge variety of cuisines where you can get a meal as cheap as S$3. Additionally, grocery shopping in Singapore is much more expensive than in the US as most perishable goods such as fruits and vegetables are imported from other countries as Singapore doesn’t have a lot of land to grow crops.

Food

So far I can say that living in Singapore is one of the greatest experiences of all time! Being exposed to new people from all over the world gives me a chance to expand my horizons, learn more about cultures and traditions, and make new friends who are coming from many different countries.


Katarina in Verona: Benvenuta al Nord

January 29, 2020

9:45 a.m. EST – Dulles International Airport

            Today is the big day. The one when I leave my rural hamlet of Middleburg and all of its touristy farm-town glory. I arose at 6 a.m. to make sure that my two immense blue suitcases were zipped up and ready to go. Before sunrise, my mom and I pulled out of the neighborhood, together in our gold Ford truck for the last time until August. We exchanged heartfelt goodbyes at the East Security Gate of Dulles Airport and there was no turning back. It was time for my journey halfway across the world. Now, waiting for my brief flight to New York, dubbed the shuttle, I look over logistics for my arrival in Verona one more time as 2000s alternative rock plays faintly on the overhead speakers. My recent camera roll on my phone has become a detailed index of boarding passes, train line information, and bus route numbers.

2:45 p.m. EST – John F. Kennedy International Airport

            The 45-minute flight from Washington, D.C. was seamless aside from the turbulent winds that made the small aircraft tremble during take-off and landing. New York was just about the biggest contrast possible to the countryside where I began my morning. A singular terminal (there are eight), must have been about a mile long, complete with its own miniature shopping mall. Everything was there, from perfumeries lined with the latest Ralph-Lauren fragrances to three Shake Shacks. After about a half hour of walking and perusing the stores, I reached my gate at the end of the terminal. With almost three hours before boarding, I decided to write and relax while I watched other planes majestically enter and exit the cloudy sky.

Plane Wing

7:55 a.m. CEST (Central European Standard Time) Milan Malpensa International Airport

            The plane edged closer and closer to the immense runway surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It was a short and smooth seven-hour flight from New York, but I was eager to get going. Sleep had come to no avail, as is usually the case when I am restrained by the perfect posture of a minuscule airplane seat. I wish I hadn’t done the math of how long the journey would be: nearly 24 hours. After a long line at passport control, it was time to get on the Milano Centrale train. To say the airport was in the outskirts of the city would be a stretch. It was nearly in another province. An hour later, the train stopped in the depths of Milano’s underground, and I had to switch to my final train. The screenshots from Google Maps that I had taken way back in Virginia were my savior to plan this four-hour extravaganza of trains and buses.

Skyline with Mountains

12:00 p.m. CEST Verona, Italy

            Keys to my apartment finally in hand, I scanned my student card at the immense burgundy doors that marked the entrance to the student residences. I knew there was potential to have anywhere from zero to 6 flat mates, so I knocked lightly on my first-floor apartment out of curiosity. All of my baggage and I were greeted by a tall girl with short blond hair and a cooking spatula in hand. I was ushered in through the door with a friendly welcome and pointed in the direction of my room. My arms were absolutely numb from hauling my suitcases for at least a mile on the cobblestone streets. In addition to my suitcases I had been given my linens for the apartment at check-in. When I emerged from stockpiling my things neatly in a corner of my room, I emerged to find three more girls waiting to greet me from the kitchen. To be honest, their names flew by in my blur of exhaustion, but they all seemed very pleasant. We had a brief conversation and then another girl came into the kitchen, introducing herself as Maria and the last of the five people in the apartment at the moment.

Verona Bridge

            A brief nap in the soft glow of afternoon sunlight brought me back to functionality. I quickly became familiar with where my flat mates were from, what they were studying, and how long they had been in this majestic city. Two are from Poland and three are from Spain. Everyone had been here since the first semester and was eager to explain to me the ins and outs of daily life here. I was quickly inundated with all the information I could need for my first few days here: including a Post-it Note of hand-drawn directions to various grocery stores and a comprehensive tutorial on how to use the induction stove. It seemed things were off to a great start in the beautiful city of Verona.


Camellia Travels the World: Sociology Research 101

January 10, 2020

Throughout the semester, each of us picks an aspect of Human Rights and conducts an individual research project with the guidance and help from our faculty and country coordination teams. The project is a qualitative sociology research, and it is very different from any other research that I have done in college. Besides literature review and online resources, we are asked to hold interviews with locals and professionals to learn more about specific cases in each country. And at the end of the semester, we share our work with each other. To tell you the truth, this is a very long journey and a hard one; step by step, I slowly developed my project and dived deep into my thoughts…

Firstly, I have to narrow my interests to one aspect of Human Rights that I am passionate about. After days of thinking, I started my project with “comparison of public and private schools,” analyzing quality of education in different countries. At the personal level, I see the difference between public and private education within my own family: my brother has always been educated in public school system in China, and I have been attending private schools in both China and the United States. On a national level, I notice the rise of private school system in China, and I am curious about the causes and the differences. Thus, I would like to learn about the education system across the world, and thus, reflect on my own case.

When I thought my topic was specific enough and was confident about my project, my professor posed many challenging questions. Out of all, the most critical issue is that it is obvious that private education is generally better than a public one; therefore, how could I make my project more unique and argumentative? Going beyond the evident inequalities regarding entrance to and the outcome of the education system, what do these differences imply? And how these differences affect the future of children?

With numerous questions in mind, I looked for the commonalities among three countries’ education system, and finally, I decided to address the inequality of language education in public and private schools. To be more precise, I focused on English learning in schools, because English has been used as an international language for communication and in academia, and thus, English learning becomes prevalent and significant for most parts of the world. I understand the importance of English, as I am a beneficiary of good language education.

 

During the final few weeks of the program, I spent hours at a café going through my notes and working on this project.

 

Yet, I still ran into a wall: how is English learning related to human rights? How can I justify the importance of language education when facing the call for language justice? Indeed, language justice is a human rights movement, fighting for equity of all languages and building multilingual spaces. I support the initiative, and I strongly believe there is no “superior language.” Then, why is language education so prevalent across the world? Is it just for global education and neoliberalism? Is there any other use of language education?

Again, I spent days at this bottleneck period, until I saw a video of Gayatri Spivak discussing English as a “tool of the masters”; by acquiring this tool, teachers can “make elite and subaltern meet.” She uses herself as an example, describing her role as an English teacher in India and how she and her students “defeated the English by loving the language.” Learning English is not an act of surrendering to the masters, but rising and speaking as the subalternity. At that moment, I finally found the connection for my research project: language learning is a tool utilized by people to demand and protect their human rights; it is to give them the power of speech and expression and let their voices be heard and understood on the world’s stage.

With this belief in mind, I argued that guaranteeing equitable language education in public education is to equip lower socioeconomic class and marginalized groups with a tool to rise to the stage with the elites, to articulate the violation of rights they have been in, and to protect human rights by themselves.

This is my first time doing a sociology research project, and as you can see, I had many moments of frustration and periods of stagnation. To me, this project has witnessed my progress, and I am very grateful for this opportunity to scrutinize one topic and develop my critical thinking and research skills.

All my thanks and love to this funky and funny, relaxed and resourceful professor that helped me throughout this semester.


Madelyn In TCI: Going Home

January 6, 2020

Well, today is my second day home. It’s strange. I don’t know how to put into words how much I miss my friends from this semester. Saying goodbye was so difficult. The morning of our departure I took a moment away from last minute packing and walked over to the conch wall. The conch wall is a little stone wall that goes along the edge of the cliff and has many sets of benches that overlook the ocean. It’s where we would go to be alone, thoughtful, or simply appreciate the ocean. It was the place where many deep, authentic conversations occurred, and where students would sit and play the guitar by themselves. Saying goodbye to that spot felt like saying goodbye to the center.

The Conch Wall

Before getting in the truck to head to the airport, we all signed out of the center for the last time, writing our hometowns as our destination, and leaving our time-in slot empty. When I saw that, I broke and my eyes started leaking, which created a chain effect of five other girls also crying and all of us laughing at ourselves.

Signing Out

Our first flight was just to get to Provo, the main island. It’s only 14 minutes in a very small plane. The entire time I stared out the window, watching the water, seeing the Salinas on the island and realizing I wouldn’t go running along them in the mornings to see flamingos anymore. It was so hard to wrap my brain around the fact that we were actually leaving, all of us going home and wouldn’t see each other for a very long time. The entire semester we had all been so present, focused only on what was happening in that moment and enjoying it as much as possible. It felt like it could never end, because none of us wanted to think about the end. We were on different planes to Provo, but all met up in that airport for a final goodbye. I had the first flight with two friends, going to Fort Lauderdale airport for a layover. The goodbye was full of tears and hugs. As much as it hurt to say goodbye to everybody, it was also so amazing to know that in such a brief period, we formed such intense connections and shared amazing experiences that made it so difficult to say goodbye. I think it would’ve been sadder to say goodbye if nobody really cared about it. We knew that we couldn’t have any regrets from the semester; we had done everything we wanted and lived a very intense, authentic lifestyle together. I still cried though, wishing it could last longer. Life just doesn’t work that way though.

When we got to Florida, I was very grateful for having two of my friends still with me. I had a 7-hour layover, and we were together for four of those hours, until both of them took different flights. I spent the rest of the time watching happy Christmas movies to cheer myself up. Landing in Philly airport was… cold. I spent the last 6 months in an eternal summer, where 75 degrees felt chilly. And suddenly it was 30 degrees and my breath made clouds of smoke outside. SO WEIRD! It was really fantastic to see my dad again and have the hour-long ride back home to catch up and tell him all of the fun stories from this semester! Even though it was 2 AM, the first thing I did when I got home was take a long, hot, freshwater shower, for the first time in 3 months. That was amazing, to feel entirely clean before going to bed. I’m going to miss my friends and the time I spent on that Caribbean island so much, but I am excited to see everybody again and hear all of the new adventures! I’m also excited to incorporate everything I learned there, particularly a sustainable lifestyle, into my present and future life. On to the next adventure!

The Last Sunset


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