Diana in Germany: Re-entry and Reflection

January 26, 2015

The past week and a half back to the USA has been full of energy and fun! I’ve seen all of my friends again, celebrated my 21st birthday in my hometown of Baltimore, and returned to school. Reverse culture shock is not really happening to me, which surprises me given how much time and resources were devoted to this topic by my IES program and the study abroad office at University of Richmond. I know several of my friends are experiencing it though – especially as it relates to their much heavier workload and busier extracurricular lives. For me, coming back to America has been almost entirely positive with one or two moments leaving me feeling uncomfortable.

Friends and I celebrating my 21st birthday back in the USA sleepover style.

Friends and I celebrating my 21st birthday back in the USA sleepover style.

So why do I feel so good? Unlike many people, I studied abroad in a country where I did not know the official language before arriving. Every day sent new struggles and triumphs in the form of language barriers out in public. Now I am back in a world where I can listen in to conversations others are having and order food with 100% certainty of what I will be receiving. Places are familiar, faces are familiar, I have access to my family and friends again! The coolest thing I realized about Americans once I came back is how friendly we are in public. Exchanging smiles on the street with complete strangers, saying good morning in a hotel elevator, discussing things with people in the grocery store line, which did not happen once while I was abroad. I used to take for granted how open we are in public, but with the lens of studying abroad in Germany I will always appreciate the warmth we show each other. There is also the fact that, even though I am taking 5 classes this semester, they all seem manageable and are being taught by passionate, supportive professors. The biggest struggle academically is keeping track of all 5 at once instead of one at a time.

What were the few experiences that have left me feeling a little wistful for Freiburg? So far they mostly relate to transportation, energy saving, and recycling. there are still plenty of ways we waste BIG TIME compared to Freiburgers. People who even label themselves environmentalists leave the lights on or keep their power cord on all day when they are not in their rooms. At the grocery stores and convenience stores they pack everything up in plastic bags, which I forgot about while I was abroad. Everyone in Freiburg would bring their own cloth bags and buy for only a few days worth of food because grocery stores are so close by. Here, the stores automatically put your products into plastic bags… which I know from my work at Watershed Monitoring often end up in rivers. I miss wind turbines and streetcars and knowing that my energy is coming from woodchips and biogas. However, I am happy to see several new recycling/trash combination receptacles on campus and several new options for public transport from University of Richmond’s campus into the city.

What has changed about me because of study abroad (besides my hair color, haha)? How has it impacted me?
-Navigating public transportation is like breathing now.
-I know a bit more German and have a new perspective on English. We are so privileged to live in a predominantly English speaking country. Young people in all areas of the world are learning English, which makes it that much easier to study abroad anywhere.
-I’m totally confident in my cooking skillz for the future (oh right that brings up my sadness about no longer having a kitchen)
-My life goals and day-to-day perspectives are more flexible. I believe that no matter what, I will get a job I like. Somehow and in some unexpected way.
-On New Years Day I felt a shift in my heart. I let go of past fights or negative feelings about situations and people. Thankfully it seems those people involved have also grown in this way 🙂 GO POSITIVITY!!

Finally, I promised you all a list of the things I would exchange between Germany and the USA to make one super awesome place. The things I would want from Germany are: curry ketchup, more wind turbines, more trams/subways, bike lanes, biking culture, chemical trackers (see below), good cheap beer, actual dancing, and black forest cake in every bakery. The things I would want from the USA are: more vegetarian options, more fruit and vegetables in restaurants, grocery stores open on Sunday, less bottled water, more free or inexpensive tap water, no cobblestone streets, Chipotle, and real milkshakes.

Wistful for wind turbines

Wistful for wind turbines

These track levels of different chemical pollutants that are in the air and gives a green, yellow, or red light depending on the air quality. Freiburg gets all green!

These track levels of different chemical pollutants that are in the air and gives a green, yellow, or red light depending on the air quality. Freiburg gets all green!

I missed volunteering! For MLK Day I volunteered at a non-profit farm, Shalom Farms, that sends its produce to those with less access to fresh, healthy food. Photo taken by Kevin Heraldo.​

I missed volunteering! For MLK Day I volunteered at a non-profit farm, Shalom Farms, that sends its produce to those with less access to fresh, healthy food. Photo taken by Kevin Heraldo.​

Blogging has been a wonderful experience and a way for me to record my life in Germany for myself. I appreciate the opportunity very much and thank the Office of International Education for selecting me!

Signing out for the last time on this particular blog!

Diana in Germany

Diana in Germany: Winter Waltz

January 9, 2015

Class ended December 18th, so what have I been up to since then? Traveling. A lot. In total I estimate that, without counting my flight back to America, I traveled over 2000 miles. Part of that time was spent with my mom, dad, and brother when they came over for Christmas in Germany. Another large chunk of that time I was traveling for a week with Topdeck Travel Tours on what was called the “Winter Waltz.” Continue reading for the adventurous details!

Christmas in Germany oozes feelings of winter wonderland. Christmas markets, light dustings of snow, and hearty food all contribute to that feeling that your life is a movie. Overall we traveled to Frankfurt, Baden-Baden, Freiburg, and castles near Munich. My top three moments of traveling with my family included the wonderful soup shack at the Frankfurt Weihnachtsmarkt, spending the day in the thermal baths of Baden-Baden, and having the perfect amount of snow on our tour of Linderhof and Neuschwanstein castles.

Frankfurt Christmas Market

Frankfurt Christmas Market

diana family

My family at Linderhof castle

diana neusch

Neuschwanstein Castle

Travel is no easy feat – it is completely exhausting after a few days, even with a more reasonable amount of luggage. I could see my mother experiencing many of the same emotions – the growth and hardships – that I have experienced traveling this semester. Sometimes it makes you emotional for absolutely no reason. In regions where everything is in a different language you can feel lost and confused easily. You keep on going and solving constant problems. Looking back it makes you proud of yourself, but in the moment it’s overwhelming. I was very proud of my parents for making every single train we took and growing as world travelers with me.

New Years was the start of my Topdeck tour. It was quite an international New Years as I was in Prague, Czech Republic, my parents were in the US, and my brother was in Morocco. Prague at New Years is completely hectic. Amateur fireworks are being set off everywhere… even right next to you!! The chaos built up my adrenalin so much that I had to blow off steam somehow. The opportunity provided itself in the form of Prague going up the down escalator of the subway. I was entirely sober at this point mind you, so that wasn’t it. I fumbled my way on and set a blistering pace upwards to the sound of thundering applause. However, my legs turned into jello three feet from the top. Two people from Topdeck tried to reach out to pull me to victory, but alas, I could not take one more step forward. It was a courageous way to start 2015.

diana prague old town square

Prague Old Town Square decorated for Christmas. Photo from http://prague.athome-network.com/blog/prague-christmas-2014.html

The rest of the trip led us to Berlin and Amsterdam for two days each. The highlight of Berlin was going out to a beer hall dressed in drag. It was a girl named Heidi’s birthday and she wanted a gender-bender party! I sampled the absolutely delectable pork knuckle dressed in a bow tie and five o clock shadow. In Amsterdam a ton of things happened including a Red Light District tour and the Heineken Experience with Masnoon before he studies abroad in New Zealand for a semester. The Heineken Experience was amazing!! We learned the history of its founding, the ingredients and process, in addition to getting some free samples and a glass to take home!

diana gender bender

I’m ready for the gender bender party!

diana heineken

Masnoon and I at the Heineken Experience in Amsterdam having some fun with the photo cut-out boards.

My last day with Topdeck was a whirlwind start to the next 48 hours of travel. We started really early in the morning from Amsterdam and took a short lunch in Bruges, Belgium. I ate traditional Flemish stew with some fries and even squeezed in running into a shop for a waffle. A few hours later we were in Calais, France boarding a ferry across the English Channel on our way to London where I spent the night. The following day I went under the English Channel in the Eurostar train on my way to Frankfurt, Germany for my flight out to the US. 6 countries in under 48 hours, phew!

Alright folks I’m going to hibernate for a week or so and come back to you with my final post – a reflection on my changes as a human being throughout study abroad and re-entry. Bonus: What I would exchange between US and Germany to make ultimate super cultures.

Diana in Copenhagen: Final Reflection

January 5, 2015

As I sit and write this from my bed in Massachusetts I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I’m home. After one hundred and twenty eight days, thirteen cities, ten countries, four classes, and countless memories, my time abroad came to a close and I could not be more grateful for the experience.

As I look back on the semester I decided to revisit some of the questions I asked myself before embarking on the adventure. I was unsure about living in a single room for the first time in college, but doing so certainly had its perks. I liked having my own kitchen and not having to work around someone else’s schedule, but I’m not as concerned as I was about having to go back to having a roommate in the future. As much as I liked living alone, having a roommate can be a lot of fun and it’s nice having someone to hang around with all the time.

I was concerned about Copenhagen being so expensive, and it really is, but I like to think I handled my budget well. I became pretty obsessed with saving money on day-to-day items so I could instead spend on things like traveling that were more important to me. This meant shopping at the discount grocery store for only the cheapest items, cooking in for nearly every meal, rationing instant coffee, and not buying many souvenirs. I also saved a lot of money on public transportation by having a bike. I’ll be honest, it was hard to part with my bike, Gwen, but I sold her at a good price causing it to only have cost me $32 for the entire four months. I feel like I got much more value out of putting my money towards experiences over material goods, and think that contributed to a much fuller and happier experience.

One last thing I voiced concern for in my first Travelogues post was how my directionally challenged self would manage getting around a city. While I’ve gotten slightly better in this arena, I would be lying if I said I was much more capable now. I decided to purchase a phone plan in Denmark providing lots of data, so I sadly still used Google Maps as a crutch to get around. I didn’t have phone service when traveling though, so I did do better job navigating from memory and by using with good old fashioned maps out of necessity.

Beyond these few concerns, my semester abroad made me exponentially more independent, which is best evidenced by my final trip of the semester. Since I wanted to book my Copenhagen flights round trip, I picked a date to fly home before knowing my finals schedule. As it turned out, I had enough time between my finals and my flight home to take advantage of the ease of European travel one last time. After failing to find someone to travel with me though, I decided to take a chance and book a trip to Spain alone. You might remember I traveled alone in London, but Spain was different, considering this time I had no one to meet up with when there. As the trip neared closer I started to get pangs of regret thinking I should have just pushed my return flight up a few days, but now I am so happy I followed through.

Beautiful benches at Plaza de España in Seville

Beautiful benches at Plaza de España in Seville

A view from the Alhambra in Granada

A view from the Alhambra in Granada

The trip was the perfect culmination of my experience abroad. It forced me out of my comfort zone more than others had because I was completely solo, had few things planned since I lacked time to do so during finals week, and had a language barrier to deal with. While this trip was indeed more challenging than others, being by myself made me deeply appreciate everything I saw and let me reflect on everything I’d done in the four months leading up to it too. I was able to be more observant, think about and process things on my own time, more readily meet other travelers, demonstrate the highest degree of independence, and do everything I could to appreciate a culture different from mine for the last time before coming home. Comparing this trip to my others, especially my solo trip in London, made me realize the true growth I’ve undergone from living abroad. In a post from a few weeks ago I wrote about using my little notebook to not feel uncomfortable when eating alone. I brought the same little notebook to Spain and put it to use again, but for a different reason this time. While having tapas alone one day in Triana, a neighborhood of Seville, I wrote, “This time I’m writing in the notebook while sitting alone not because I feel awkward, but because I don’t want to forget a single thing.” Being alone that day in Seville was probably one of my favorite days abroad, and it made me realize how far I’d come in such a short time.

Diana food
While the trip to Spain was an amazing way to culminate my experience abroad, the entire four-month span I was away had a profound effect on me. There are many reasons why I’m happy to be home, but am forever grateful for the friends, lessons, and memories from my semester in Denmark.

Thank you all for reading. Farvel!

Me, at the Alhambra in Granada

Me, at the Alhambra in Granada

Oliver in Spain: Transitioning back to the States

January 5, 2015

I have now been back Stateside for a little under two weeks, even though it feels like I’ve been back for much longer than that. I figured I’d have a pretty easy transition back to this culture after having traveled so much throughout my life but every now and again there are certain things that remind me I’m no longer living in Spain.

I think the biggest difference I have noticed so far is the food culture. In Valencia I would sit at a café and 20 minutes later a server would ask me if I would like anything to drink or eat. In the States there is a server at your table within two minutes of sitting down. Give me a second to settle in! Similarly, in Valencia I’d finish whatever I was drinking or eating and stay seated chatting with my friends for a couple hours. In the States I feel uncomfortable staying more than 15 minutes after paying the check. It feels like I’m being quietly encouraged to get the hell out. I don’t mean to sound angry with this difference, and I’m not, it is just a very big difference between the two cultures. The US is all about efficiency and profit. The cafés here are thinking, “how many customers can I get in and out of my door in one day?” In Spain you are treated like a family member coming back for a drink. If you frequent the place, it is not unusual for the server to sit with you for a quick chat. I definitely prefer that laid back feeling.

On the other hand, the efficiency of the US was something I missed while in Spain. Sometimes you just want something done, and fast. That simply doesn’t exist in Spain. People will work on their own time and will shut down for three hours every day for a siesta. Going to a store in the early afternoon seems like such a novel idea now!

I haven’t had an overwhelming feeling of missing Valencia just yet. I’m still in the recovery stage of being back with the family. The biggest thing I miss from being abroad is the constant excitement. Living back in the Philadelphia suburbs feels so…lacking…after a semester trailblazing through Europe from one ancient city to another. That being said, it’s very nice to have access to Netflix again!

I’m half way through this break and I am already counting the days to get back to UR. I have seen a few friends here and there and will be seeing a lot more during or New Years Eve celebrations. I can’t wait to get back into the swing of things at Richmond after a nice semester of memories.

Valencia will always have a place in my heart and I am looking forward to going back the next time I’m in Spain. I think I will miss my host family most, but there will be a whole lot to miss in the weeks to come. I imagine it will all hit me hard when I am back into the regular routine of school. I will never forget all of the things I have been able to do through the past four months. It almost seems like a dream but I am pleased to see all of the pictures and words I will have forever as documentation of my experiences. Europe, I’ll see you soon. US, it’s good to be home.

Jack in Czech Republic: Souvenirs

January 5, 2015

I considered writing a simple reflection on my time in Prague in my penultimate post (I will write a finale right before I return to UR), but I figured the souvenirs I returned with could do a better job illustrating my last four months. Don’t worry, I got y’all a bunch of gifts too. Without further ado:

Football Ticket — I had to save my ticket from what was the greatest sporting event I have ever witnessed. One of the best, if not the best, nights I had in Prague came 48 hours after I arrived. Four other students new to Prague and I ventured to Generali Arena in hopes of experiencing the atmosphere surrounding a European Qualifying match between the Czechs and world-class-juggernauts Holland. Unexpectedly, we stumbled into five tickets, and witnessed a truly amazing game that the Czechs miraculously pulled out. I recapped the night in more detail soon after it happened.

Pilsner Mug — Spending a semester in Europe, and Prague in particular, comes with the stigma that it is a big, endless party, which is far from true. If your study abroad experience was just one big party, you wasted a non-replicable opportunity. At the same time, experiencing different bar atmospheres and meeting a wide range of people, both locals and other foreigners, at bars around the city proved to be an informative and fun way to learn about the local culture. Pilsner Urquell is THE beer of the Czech Republic, so I brought a mug home with me as a reminder of all the amazing people I met and all the fascinating stories I heard while drinking Pilsner Urquell.

Lucerna Ticket — The other souvenir from my nightlight adventures in Prague differs greatly in its meaning from the Pilsner mug. I brought home a ticket to Lucerna’s weekly 80s and 90s party, which was the spot for Americans on Friday nights. The playlist was top notch, consisting of throwback after throwback. Lucerna served as the perfect venue for our one last going away party.

Prague Beanie — Prague’s Christmas markets, like many other cities in Europe, were fantastic. There were many small markets scattered around the city with little stands full of Christmas trinkets, food and drink, and cute winter clothes. My one tangible takeaway from the markets is a bright orange beanie that I will excessively rock next semester.

Mike Tyson Energy Drink — I bought this energy drink when my entire program traveled to Krakow for a weekend. There isn’t a whole lot of significance behind this drink – I just saw an energy drink with a huge Mike Tyson face on it, so I figured I had no choice but to buy and save one.

Thanks for the energy drink, Mike.

Thanks for the energy drink, Mike.

Berlin Collage — The lone souvenir I bought in Berlin is a collage from a small art market that an expat American made. The caption, translated from German, reads, “You can’t buy culture.” Yet that was exactly what I was doing – buying a piece of art from Berlin that is linked to a cool story and interesting artist I met. I’m looking forward to hanging this collage in my room next semester, so everyone knows how cultured I am.

Warning: These next two items might be overly sentimental.

Czechoslovakia T-shirt — My pal Kevin and I stumbled into a sweet clothing market on one of our last days in Prague. There were a bunch of shirts that stood out to me, but this one light-blue shirt of a van with the caption “Made in Czechoslovakia” jumped out. I thought the shirt was cool, so I bought it – pretty simple equation, I know – but I began to appreciate it more in the coming days. “Made in Czechoslovakia” began to have more of a meaning for me. Sure, Czechoslovakia no longer exists and I wasn’t exactly “made” in Prague, but still, it fascinated me. Prague, in a way, shaped me. Any place where you spend a great deal of time will shape you in one way or another, and I can actually notice vast differences in my personality, views, and goals compared to who I was and what I believed in last August. I may not have been made in Czechoslovakia, but I was shaped in the Czech Republic.

Tattoo — My favorite souvenir, and the one that will stick with me for the rest of my life, whether I like it or not, is the tattoo I got in the final few weeks of my stay. I had a globe sketched into my right bicep along with the caption “Svét je náš”, which means, “The World is Yours” in Czech. The cheesiness here is obvious, but this quote, which comes from a movie I’ve never seen and a song that I like but don’t love, inspires me. My father has always preached to me that the world is much smaller now than it was a generation ago, but that never really struck me until I actually got to experience a new part of the world. And I don’t want to stop now. I love my friends, and I love my family, but I like Prague, and Europe in general, more than I like the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic of the United States. My time in Prague was certainly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – how many times do you get to spend a few months in a foreign city with unlimited freedom and limited responsibility – but now I want to explore somewhere else. Grad school in Europe? Why not. The world is yours.

Is it obvious I don’t work out?

Is it obvious I don’t work out?

Selfie of the week: Because I am an egotistical millennial, here is the selfie of the week:

I struggled to find time to write a blog post in my final days in Europe, but I managed to find time when I really did not want to. On Dec. 24, the day I moved out of my apartment, I thought I’d be creative and send my suitcases down two floors in the elevator. I’ve used this shortcut before to make my life marginally easier, and I expected similar results. Instead, my bags fell on the elevator door, preventing it from opening. Two hours of waiting, $125, and increased loss of sanity later and the elevator door magically opened thanks to a repairman gracious enough to accept my cash on Christmas Eve. This is when I knew I was ready to come home.

I struggled to find time to write a blog post in my final days in Europe, but I managed to find time when I really did not want to. On Dec. 24, the day I moved out of my apartment, I thought I’d be creative and send my suitcases down two floors in the elevator. I’ve used this shortcut before to make my life marginally easier, and I expected similar results. Instead, my bags fell on the elevator door, preventing it from opening. Two hours of waiting, $125, and increased loss of sanity later and the elevator door magically opened thanks to a repairman gracious enough to accept my cash on Christmas Eve. This is when I knew I was ready to come home.

Diana in Copenhagen: Preserving Memories

January 5, 2015

Most of what you’ve heard from me over the past four months has been about how I’ve made memories. I’ve tried to open a virtual door to give you a peek into this once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ve had the joy of living. For this post though—my second to last one—I’m instead going to share with you how I’ve been trying to preserve every memory I’ve made. As I just finished up my exams at Copenhagen Business School I’m tempted to phrase it like this: I’ve put enough time and capital investment into these past four months that I want to make sure not a second or penny is wasted. I want long-term value out of these experiences so there have been multiple ways I’ve tried to keep them.

If you are reading this you are clearly aware that I am one of the Foreign Correspondents for UR whose job it is to write about our time abroad. There are many reasons why this position has value: it will help me build a writing portfolio to use when applying to jobs, it’s paid, and it will (hopefully) look good on a resume. The primary reason why I was so eager to apply, however, was because it would force me to reflect and describe what I experience in my time away from Richmond. Many students who go abroad keep blogs for themselves to help them keep track of our hectic lives, and I wanted to do the same but worried that I wouldn’t be as diligent in doing so as I’d like. So many friends told me that your months abroad are the best in your life but that they finish in the blink of an eye. I knew how easy it would be to get caught up in the excitement and fantasy overseas and forget to blog on my own time, and I wasn’t willing to make that sacrifice. I sought this position to gain the added pressure of deadlines and quotas so I could follow though on making the meaningful reflections I knew I’d appreciate later. With this being said, I hope you have appreciated at least something I’ve had to say over the past four months, but also know that I’m writing these posts somewhat selfishly.

I have a Facebook account and the sky is blue. Both are probably equally obvious in this day in age, and I’ve used my social media profile to preserve many meaningful memories for myself. Of course, the whole point of social media is to be just that, social, but my albums full of hundreds of pictures are less for giving others a glimpse into my life abroad and more to help me keep track of my countless experiences. I am religious at adding specific locations to where a picture was taken so I can have deeper and more meaningful memories of the amazing places I’ve seen. We found an awesome restaurant in Rome, for example, and I tagged its location as “Roma Sparita,” the name of the quaint restaurant versus just tagging it as “Rome, Italy.” If anyone ever visits Rome I will always remember the name of this little restaurant filled with the best cacio e pepe you’ve ever had and locals who will stare when you walk in because you’re not from Italy. The magic is in the details, and my Facebook account has helped me to remember them.

Another thing I use Facebook for is to remind myself of why I liked things so much. Before I went to Florence I really wasn’t sure why the Statue of David was as famous as it was, to be honest. Upon seeing him in person though, and reading the description of what Michelangelo’s depiction signified for the Florentines, I was amazed. I wanted to remember why I was in such awe and admiration in that one moment, so I captioned the Facebook photo with an excerpt from the description on the plaque beside the statue. I don’t do this for everything, but for certain ones I think it’ll be helpful to know not just where exactly a place was, but also why I thought it was meaningful enough to capture it in a photograph.

Diana David

Me, with Michelangelo’s David

The only time I have kept a journal was when I was really young at a residential summer camp (the same one mentioned in my first post, if I have any loyal followers on this thing). While I never continued the practice, I have looked back on it countless times and been entertained and amused by what eight-year-old Diana had to say about camp dances and making three bull’s-eyes in archery. I love reading about all of my thoughts, fears, excitement, and experiences so many years after the fact. Some parts were a nice reminder of things I did, but others shared stories I had no recollection of. The journal acted like a portal in that sense, taking me through a mind I knew but with memories I’d forgotten. I love revisiting that little window into the past and I knew how much I would appreciate doing the same years from now too.

This, like the others methods I’ve described, I keep for myself. I use my journal so I can be reminded of the ridiculous times I spent gallivanting around Europe or laughing myself to tears with friends in the dorm. I try and write about everything too. One entry spent two whole pages detailing the unbelievably delicious Thanksgiving dinner I had when my parents came to visit and another describes why exactly I was so enthralled by the Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican. My blogs help me articulate many feelings and observations I have, but my journal helps me focus more on my day-to-day lifestyle and smaller goings on too.

Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican

Galleria delle Carte Geografiche in the Vatican

Since I keep the journal for myself, I also try and be as honest as possible. I mentioned how I use Facebook to remind me of all my memories from abroad, but that’s not the entire truth. Whether it is deliberate or not, our use of social media often tells a distorted story. The pictures I, and most others I would guess, put on social media show us at our best. We take pictures of the Octoberfests, the Amsterdam Music Festivals, and all of the other amazing adventures to help us remember the great times we’ve had. Just because this overall experience has been so amazing doesn’t mean it didn’t have its share of difficulties, though. I was home for less than forty-eight hours between my ten weeks away this summer and eighteen gone this semester, and that wasn’t always easy. Am I taking pictures of myself feeling a little upset in my room and posting them on Facebook to tell a fuller story? Of course not, but I think the tough times are just as valuable to remember as the great ones. I know no one’s going to be reading my journal so I feel comfortable preserving all of my memories in there, good or bad, and think I will appreciate how my time abroad wasn’t always a breeze but that I struggled and grew from parts of it as well.

Diana handwritten book

One last way I commemorate my experiences is with keychains. I inherited a big green hiker’s backpack (named Yertle) from my sister that she used abroad, and I stole this idea from her. She added a keychain to the backpack from every city she visited when she travelled, and their accumulation was pretty amazing. My favorite part about studying abroad was traveling the continent, and I loved having the physical proof of that dangle behind me. Yertle got a little louder and a little heavier after every trip, and hearing the clanking of the keychains as I walked toward each next adventure brought a smile to my face. I felt like those pieces of metal weren’t just bought at insanely overpriced souvenir shops, but that they were earned and that each carried its own set of memories along with it. Unfortunately I lost one Amsterdam keychain due to an aggressive baggage-claim process so I took them all off the backpack to avoid further casualties. I also did so though, to find a way to better display them, and my plan is to get a large map and hang all of the keychains from pins in their locations. I realized my love for travel while abroad, so I hope this collection is just the beginning. I want to fill the map, fill the journal, take too many pictures, and keep writing too.

My favorites are the one from Denmark and the one with the Pope giving a thumbs-up

My favorites are the one from Denmark and the one with the Pope giving a thumbs-up

Stay tuned for my final post with more reflections from my time abroad, and happy holidays to everyone!

Jack in Czech Republic: The Case Against Traveling

December 16, 2014

So far I have only traveled to Ireland, Krakow, Munich and two additional cities in the Czech Republic. “What do you mean only!?” you ask. Compared to a bunch of my friends, that really is not that much traveling. In fact, most people seem to be away nearly every weekend. And how could you blame them? Prague is in the dead center of Europe, and traveling in Europe is relatively cheap. Let’s get this out of the way – I am not anti traveling and I totally get why people dedicate much of their time in Europe to traveling. Instead, I want to emphasize some seldom-mentioned reasons for not traveling. Here are some the reasons why I am in favor of staying home:

$$$ — Traveling in Europe, albeit cheaper than America, still costs money. But, cost is only one factor to consider when debating the merits of traveling vs. staying home. In fact, I’d contend, which I assume other study abroad students would support, that cost shouldn’t always prevent students on this once-and-a-life-time opportunity. It’s not like I don’t spend money when I am home. Still, I have saved some money staying in Prague most weekends.

Learn your city — Since I have had plenty of open weekends in Prague, I have been able to explore many different parts of the city. Going to the same restaurants, cafes, and bars on weekends gets old after a while, so, in a way, I had to explore other areas of Prague. I now feel comfortable going practically anywhere in Prague. As I wrote in my first post, directions aren’t one of my strong areas. I have, however, improved my general sense of direction, thanks, in part, to my continuous exploration of Prague.

Independence — Because of the variety of everyone’s travel schedule, I seem to find myself hanging out with new people every weekend, which I have enjoyed. Each weekend seems to create some new, for lack of a better word, crew, of people to explore Prague with.

Internship — In addition to my course load, I work two part-time internships, so I generally work five-day weeks. Although “real people” work five days a week anyway, study abroad students aren’t necessarily “real [people”. Most students have either three-day or four-day weeks, making weekend trips easier to schedule. If you are going to one of Europe’s many major attractions, you want a full weekend; leaving Friday night and coming back Sunday makes for a short trip. My internships prevented me from traveling more than anything else – a tough tradeoff for sure – but I am happy with my decision.

I’m certainly in the minority group when it comes to traveling, which makes sense. If you were studying in the heart of Europe why would you not travel as much as you could? Plenty of my pals who frequently traveled have said they aren’t going to get to some of the places they wished to see. I would encourage anyone studying in this area to travel around some, but don’t feel compelled to have to go somewhere every weekend. My study abroad situation is not better or worse than the traveling hounds – it’s just different.

I still traveled though. Here are some highlights:

Despite the gross weather, The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland were absolutely breathtaking.

Despite the gross weather, The Cliffs of Moher in Ireland were absolutely breathtaking.

Oktoberfest was, uh, lots of fun!

Oktoberfest was, uh, lots of fun!

For my first trip of the semester, my program took all of us to Cesky Krumlov, which is pretty much a real-life fairytale.

For my first trip of the semester, my program took all of us to Cesky Krumlov, which is pretty much a real-life fairytale.

Selfie of the week: Because I am an egotistical millennial, here is the selfie of the week:

A lot of the students in my program finished finals last week, so Friday night at Lucerna, a 80s-90s dance club on weekends, offered the ideal going away party.

A lot students in my program finished finals last week, so Friday night at Lucerna, a 80s-90s dance club on weekends, offered the ideal going away party.

Oliver in Spain: The Last Week

December 16, 2014

Well this is it…I am staring down the last three days I have in this amazing city before hopping a flight back to the US. These last four months have been life altering, to say the least, but before I get into the emotions I’m feeling and what’s going in my head I want to let you all know what I’ve been crossing off my list.

Since I first arrived here I have wanted to go to the aquarium, L’oceanográfico. This aquarium is the biggest in Europe and the fourth biggest in the world! So with a week left I went with a friend to witness the wonder of the Beluga Whale…amongst many other marine animals. The aquarium most certainly did not disappoint and I left feeling satisfied with multiple shark tunnels, every fish you could think of, and a dolphin show!

Oliver shark
With that off my list I only had to do one more thing: enjoy the Valencia Christmas festivities. This activity consisted of getting a big group of friends together and heading to the center of the city (Plaza de Ayuntamiento), where they had an ice skating rink, a massive Christmas tree, and lights all over the place. We arrived around 10:30 to blaring Christmas music and joyful faces everywhere. I have to admit that seeing Christmas lights wrapped around a palm tree is not the Christmas festivities that I have become accustomed to but you’d be surprised how little it matters as long as you have good company! We ended up ice skating for almost 2 hours before heading off to an awesome Irish pub down the road.

Oliver iceskate
That pretty much wrapped up the weekend festivities before heading into finals week, the best week of the year…As I’m writing this blog post I have finished all but one exam. The end is near! Unfortunately, that also means the end of my semester is near. I currently have less than three full days left here and realizing that definitely feels a little weird.

Without a doubt Valencia has become a kind of home for me. The friends that I have made here will stay with me for a long time. After all, transitioning to a whole new culture with a different language brings you close to people. I am very comfortable with my host family as well, and will miss them a lot once I leave. Last night at dinner I said how weird it was to be wrapping up my final week here. My host brother responded by saying “Aww…que mal, que triste” (How bad, how sad). I will surely miss our fútbol/basketball sessions.

With that said, I want to say how excited I am to be returning home. This semester flew by but traveling almost every weekend really wears on you and I am looking forward to some R&R. I can’t wait to see my family again, but before thinking too much about that I get to enjoy two more soccer matches (students v. students and students v. professors) as well as one last night out all together.

My next post will be submitted from the States, about a week after getting back home. I’ll let you all know how much I am missing Valencia then, I’m sure it will be a lot, and let you know how I’m transitioning to being back in the States.

Diana in Germany: Holiday Happenings

December 15, 2014

Late fall and early winter mark several celebrations for Americans back home. Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and all the days until Christmas and New Years. Though Germans do not celebrate Thanksgiving, my IES program was very sensitive to the fact that this is a special time for family and friends to come together for a large meal back home. So about 2 weeks ago IES hosted a dinner at one of the fancier restaurants in Freiburg up on Schlossberg mountain. After everybody huffed and puffed up the stairs to the top – because really who is going to pay for a two minute funicular – we were so ready to eat. I entered the dining room feeling mildly underdressed, but easily relaxed as I saw my friends and two of my previous teachers, Klaus and Sandra!

Klaus, my Environmental Ethics professor, and I at the Thanksgiving Dinner

Klaus, my Environmental Ethics professor, and I at the Thanksgiving Dinner

Sandra, my Sustainable Policy professor, and I at the Thanksgiving Dinner

Sandra, my Sustainable Policy professor, and I at the Thanksgiving Dinner

We still waited quite a time for the food! That may have been the only bad part of the evening though. The wait staff kept bringing a steady supply of fresh bread with butter to my table in particular (Many vegetarians, one vegan, and me, the “flexitarian”) Our first course was a kurbissuppe or pumpkin soup and our second course was a wonderfully dressed selection of salad and vegetables. The main meal was different than what I am used to. For me, it was in a good way. We got small cylinders of what I assume was their version of stuffing. Many of the other students mentioned they missed “real” stuffing. Mashed potatoes, warm applesauce, corn, carrots…. more bread. The pièce de résistance were the mushrooms in cream sauce. I have always been a huge mushroom fan, but never in my life have I experienced them in a more mouth-watering way. The one small piece of turkey I ate from someone else’s plate was very nice, better than the turkey I eat at home. The dessert left a lot to be desired (no pumpkin or apple pie), but we were entertained by two IES students, Ben and Katrina, singing songs from Sound of Music. I left the Schlossberg restaurant happy and very full of Thanksgiving food. IES really pulled out all the stops.


Those mushrooms…. I will never forget them.

The following weekend after Thanksgiving, I began my exploration of the Christmas Market in Freiburg! There were bright lights, people selling their crafts (glass, wood, ceramics, you name it). My friend Dave and I shared glühwein which is traditionally a mulled red wine for the winter season. (P.S. I am not a fan of glühwein) I also ate kartoffel puffers which are actually latkes! Dave had potatoes with a fried egg on top. There was flammkuchen (flat pizza), pasta, sauerkraut, burgers, sausages, cheeses, and sweets. Basically a smorgasbord! I returned to the markets the following day after a few hours of ice skating with my friends.

Kartoffelpuffer - yummy

Kartoffelpuffer – yummy

The next weekend I went to the Christmas Market in Colmar, France. First, my group got a tour of the city. We saw their Mannekin Pis, which was made to look like the one I saw earlier this year in Bruxelles, Belgium. Afterwards we saw the birthplace of Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, creator of the Statue of Liberty, which I saw for the first time right before coming to Europe. Colmar is obviously just on the border of France and Germany based on the different architectural styles and languages written and spoken there. In fact Colmar has switched 5 times between French and German rule.

Mannekin Pis à Colmar

Mannekin Pis à Colmar

The Christmas markets themselves were more spread out throughout the city (5 different areas), which was different from the centralized market in Freiburg.The glühwein here is made with the traditional wine and spices, but also has some brandy in it.  The white wine version here is made from Alsace grapes. There were also more crêpe and waffle stations and even a stall selling escargot. I almost tried it, but chickened out when I realized I did not know the proper way to eat them. Food etiquette is a pretty big deal to me in respecting a culture, so escargot will be on the list in the future. I also noticed more people selling lace products in Colmar and fewer wooden products. It was great to experience two different markets to get a feel for what they have in common and how regional differences play into their diversity as well.

Colmar Christmas Markets

Colmar Christmas Markets

A Santa spotting!

A Santa spotting!

Back at my flat, this winter season has brought with it many awesome surprises. One of my flatmates, Hanna, organized an advent calendar. Nine of the flatmates contributed 3 presents each (that were 5 euros or less in cost). We hung the presents up in the living room as part of our Christmas decorations. Each day one person opens the presents (we have a list on the wall to keep track of who opens a present on which day). So far I have opened two presents: a cloth pencil/paintbrush holder and a bar of chocolate. A few days ago I woke up and found Stutenkerl, barely sweet dough, in the shape of a man on the handle of my door. This was to mark St. Nikolaus Tag (St. Nicholas Day) on December 6th. French legend has it that a hungry butcher killed three lost boys, but that St. Nicholas brought them back to life. My flat had a Christmas dinner this weekend with knödel, which are round bread dumplings, along with different soups and salads. For dessert we had baked apples filled with nuts and topped with vanilla sauce. It was great to have this bonding experience just one week before I move out.

Advent Calendar

Advent Calendar

Baked goods for St. Nikolaus Tag

Baked goods for St. Nikolaus Tag

Christmas dinner with my flatmates

Christmas dinner with my flatmates

Which brings me to letting you know I have only:
-3 days left of class
-6 days left in the flat
-7 days until I see my parents who are coming here to Germany for Christmas (we are starting in Frankfurt, then Baden-Baden, Freiburg for Christmas, and Munich)
-24 days until I am home… after my parents fly back home from Munich I get to go on a weeklong tour of Europe

I am excited to enjoy my last month or so in Europe with family, friends, travel, and great food. But I really am also ready to come home to fulfill all my plans. Through this time abroad I set up an opportunity to shadow a genetic counselor, volunteer training at a domestic violence shelter in Richmond, and joined an organization called WILL* (formerly known as Women Involved in Living and Learning) at my school. I will also be able to declare a double major in biology and environmental studies and a minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Not to mention when I get home I turn 21 two days after arrival, get to go to Washington D.C. with Oldham Scholars, and get to settle into the newest dorms on campus in Westhampton Hall. My life is filled with endless blessings. Coming to the end of my time in Germany allows me to reflect on how thankful I am for all my supporters, for all my challengers, and for my privileges, all of which have led me to live this full, spectacular life.

Oliver in Spain: Last Travel Experience

December 11, 2014

As soon as December hit I knew I had just over two weeks to make the most out of my remaining time in Europe and I knew that I wanted to spend my last weekend abroad in Valencia, so that left me with one weekend left to travel. After countless weekends of travel all over Europe (an unreal feat that will only hit me once I get back Stateside), coming to the realization that one excursion remained was rather shocking. That being said I knew exactly where I wanted to go, Florence. For some reason, and I have no idea why, this city had been on my list of places to visit the entire semester. I was able to gather a group of 8 close friends who were all thinking the same thing, “one weekend of travel left? Let’s do it big.” The plan was put into motion and a day later I had my tickets booked for Italy. Cities featured on this trip: Pisa, Florence, and Rome.

The first week of December absolutely flew by with our excitement for Italy and before we knew it we were crammed into our small seats on a RyanAir plane ready to take off. Just under two hours later we landed in Pisa raring to go and immediately hopped a bus to go see the tower, you know, the one that leans. We had already booked our bus into Florence so we had about a four hour gap to get to the tower, take your typical touristy pictures, grab lunch, and get to the main bus station.

As we were riding along the bus we were distracted by the beautiful Pisa sights…well actually Pisa doesn’t really have much to offer so we were just chatting until we stopped and some local said, “Tower. Now.” We hopped out of the bus and walked a few minutes until we saw it. Prior to laying my own eyes on it I wasn’t very convinced that it could be leaning that much, but wow. The degree of this tower just does not seem to add up. I still can’t wrap my head around how this tower seems to ignore the law of physics. After taking three pictures and waiting an hour for the girls to create a massive portfolio of every pose imaginable we made our way to a quiet restaurant. We sat down and ordered shortly after, pizza and wine for everyone. For the next four days there was a theme of pizza, pasta, and red wine for everyone. Not the worst order.

Leaning Tower

The Leaning Tower of Pisa


The first of many pizzas

That night we made our way into Florence. Our apartment was a 20 minute walk from the bus station so we took that opportunity to get some fresh air and see a little bit of this city. From the first minute, my standards were through the roof and Florence did not disappoint. Five minutes later we were walking past the massive Duomo, lit up by a full moon.

Florence duomo

The Duomo in Florence

Florence duomo 2

A side view

A little tired from all the travel in one day we decided to sit down for dinner. This was the best dinner I have had all semester, and not just because of the amazing food. Somehow we decided to go around the table telling our favorite three memories of our time abroad and then raising a glass to it. All of the memories from the entire semester came back and we spent hours laughing with one another. I am truly thankful for the friends I have found this semester and I know I am going to keep in touch with every one of them.

a little dysfunctional

My friends: A little dysfunctional, but that’s nothing new.

We all woke up the next day and while the girls were taking their time getting ready the guys were making plans: Duomo, City Center, Michelangelo’s David, Ponte Vecchio (Bridge), and finishing the day by looking over Florence as the sun set with a marvelous view thanks to the Piazzale Michelangelo. The entire time we were walking around the city I had a huge smile on my face. Looking back on it, I can easily say that Florence is one of the best cities I have ever visited. I love that place and I want to go back ASAP! Here are some pictures to give you a glimpse into the beauty I was seeing at every stop:

The face of the Duomo

The daytime face of the Duomo

The David

The copy of Michelangelo’s David statue that stands outside the Palazzo Vecchio.

View off the Ponte Vecchio

The view off the Ponte Vecchio

Florence city view

Florence at almost sunset

Oliver in florence

Me in Florence. What a view!

Unfortunately, we were only in Florence for a day and a half. Fortunately, our next stop was Rome. We took a three hour train into the city of Rome and took a short metro stop to our apartment. By now, traveling had become second nature. The feeling of getting into a completely new city and figuring your way around it is liberating. That night we took an initial visit to the Colosseum and saw the impressive building in all its glory. The Colosseum lit up in the evening is a special sight. We proceeded to walk around the city for a long time and found our way into a church, the Pantheon, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities (random, I know, but a very impressive building), as well as the Spanish steps. Dinner? You guessed it: Pizza.


The Colosseum in the evening

Interior of church

The organist in this church was playing Christmas music!

Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities

The Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities


The Pantheon!

Early Sunday morning we found out just how close we were to the Vatican City by walking 20 yards from our front door and passing through the Vatican Wall. Walking into the main plaza (Piazza San Pietro – St Peter’s Square) of the Vatican we found ourselves in the midst of hundreds of people. At first we thought this was a normal occurrence on Sunday, then we were informed that in 30 minutes the Pope was going to address everyone. What luck! Needless to say, we stayed put and shortly after the Pope appeared from a window. He was speaking in Italian so I wasn’t able to pick up on much (I thought Italian and Spanish were more similar than they are) but I did understand a few things!

St Peter's square and Pope

St. Peter’s Square


The Pope!

Seeing the Pope in person must have drained our resources of luck because we soon found out that everything in the Vatican Mueseum was closed because of a holiday. That meant no Sistine Chapel…! After a minute of sulking we rebounded by heading back to the Colosseum to actually go inside the building (we watched Gladiator the night before and were in the mood to get an even closer look). Our luck came back to us with free admittance. Without a doubt the Colosseum meets up to its hype.

Colosseo interior

The interior of the Colosseum

Oliver and friends in Colosseo

Me (far right) with my friends at the Colosseum

That was a very brief overview of my four day trip to Italy. There was a lot more that I got around to (including an impromptu dance party at a random book store in Florence) but I can’t include everything or this would turn into a thesis length blog post. Everything in Italy was amazing and Florence lived up to everything I had hoped for. That was one of my favorite excursion, thanks to great company and beautiful cities. I can’t wait to get back to Italy.

As I write this I am trying to get my head around the fact that I only have about a week left in Valencia. Everything is starting to feel very bittersweet because we are trying to do as much as possible, knowing that we don’t have much time left in Europe. Valencia has become a home for me and I do not think I am ready to leave it just yet. I will be enjoying this week to the fullest but I know my next blog post will be very difficult to write. Now I’m going to go play fútbol with my little host brother!

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