Meghann in Argentina: Saying Goodbye

January 6, 2018

I’ve been home for a little over a week now, and it feels like I have been abruptly dropped back into a former life: seeing family and friends from home, working, and getting ready to go back to school. I was partially expecting some drastic homecoming where, after half a year, I would feel completely changed and my hometown would look different, but what I experienced was far less dramatic. Not much at home has changed, and I am also pretty much the same, just with a slew of new experiences and memories behind me. It is great to be home in the U.S., but I know that it’s only a matter of time before I start really missing Buenos Aires and wanting to be back again.

 

It is difficult to make a “final reflection” about such a long period of time in which so much happened, but I will say this: if you are a University of Richmond student (or a student from another university, for that matter) reading this, I can’t recommend going abroad enough. I’ve hesitated to call these the “best six months of my life” to avoid running the risk of sounding overly dramatic (and, as many people joke about abroad students who return and rant excessively about their experiences, annoying). But now, looking back, I wonder why I shouldn’t consider this the happiest and most formative experience I’ve ever had? This period of time in my life was unique in the sense that I’m not sure that I will ever again have the chance to drop everything and briefly restart my life in a completely different part of the world. The places that I traveled, the things that I learned, and perhaps most importantly, the people that I met, have shaped me in a way that I can’t describe. So yes, I’ll say it, even if it does make me sound like the stereotypical “abroad CHANGED me” student: these were the best six months of my life, and I am so incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to call Buenos Aires home.

 

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Gracias por todo, Buenos Aires!


Jess en France: In Retrospect

December 21, 2017

I’ve been home for about a week now and have had the time to reflect on these past four months. Studying abroad in Paris at one of the most challenging schools in France was difficult academically—in other words I was studying hard and still in fear of failing…But the learning component of study abroad was hardly based in the classroom but in the experience of making a life for myself in a country whose language I’m only learning to speak, whose culture I’m trying to assimilate into, and whose customs I’m trying to adopt. It was one of the most necessary experiences I’ve ever had when considering my growth as an independent person. It was amazing, simply put, but I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t also mention that it was incredibly challenging, both emotionally and mentally.

I hit some high highs but also some low lows. I know for sure that I got bit by the travel bug. In total I visited twelve cities, six countries, and had exposure to at least thirty different languages. I learned to drop everything and go explore other countries as well as navigate the difficulties of problem solving that come with the inevitable stress of travel. On the other hand, I experienced what it’s like to be alone and feel alone. Initially, I couldn’t communicate effectively with almost anyone and needed the patience both for myself and the process of getting to know people like I’ve been transported back to freshman year of college. The first few months, in this respect, were very difficult. But George Addair once said that everything you want is on the other side of fear, and I cannot emphasize more how daunting yet rewarding turning about-face to some of the fears I didn’t even know I had has been for me as I understand myself as a changing person. In other words, I grew up, even if it’s just a little bit.

Most importantly, my conception of the planet and humanity’s role in it has dramatically shifted after spending these months working with homeless refugees. One of my good friends, Jumah, which mean’s Friday’s prayer in Arabic, is a Syrian refugee I came to know closely. On Thursdays and Sundays, I would go out to the Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood in the outskirts of Paris with the Refugee Help Association at my university to distribute information packets concerning asylum seeking. Jumah would help me translate for some of the refugees who didn’t speak French or English. There’s a lot people want to tell you but agonize to say when they don’t have the capacity to communicate, and, having moved to a country whose language I could hardly speak, I could resonate. He would translate for me, and on my first day on the job, a man from Afghanistan had said that if I didn’t get him a tent to sleep in before the winter cold set in, he was going to die on the streets. My work with the refugees was not only a wake-up call to the inefficacy of current state asylum policies, but it was also a reminder of our common humanity—that humans are humans who want the same things, who, regardless of where they’re escaping from, will stand in front of me as I offer them help and ask for nothing more than the hope to survive tragedy. We are all refugees because refugees are humans, and humans are more than the categories into which we narrowly enclose them. So whether or not the refugee crisis can be solved, all I would hope to impart as a witness to the receiving end of this common hardship is the recognition that these individuals are no different and want no differently than you or me, and this message of humanity is only irretrievably lost if we make the conscious decision to look at them as somehow intrinsically different. My brief experience having met Jumah and the many other familiar faces at Porte de la Chapelle is a testament to the dormant humanity that I trust will slowly swing to life and come to the aid of those who need it most. But it rests in our hands to question why we stand where we stand and why we think how we think. It’s up to us.

As you might imagine, studying abroad is emotionally enduring, but, for me, it became what I made of it, and what I made for myself was a life in a corner of the world that just a few months ago I couldn’t have imagined I’d have navigated fruitfully. I made the friends who then turned into hard goodbyes and the memories that have become indelibly written into my timeline as a maturing young adult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to Paris or France or Europe in general, but a part of my identity was formed there, and, although my time there as an undergrad is finished, I know I’ll be back. I’m sure it won’t be long.

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Meghann in Argentina: The Last Hurrah

December 18, 2017

I’m celebrating my return to a computer and stable Internet for the first time in nearly three weeks by finally writing a new post, having just returned from a backpacking journey that took me through Mendoza, Chile, and Patagonia! I had never done a trip like this before, so as I packed my relatively small hiking backpack at the end of November, I was excited for what lay ahead—my friends and I had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, but very few solid plans. I could write for hours about what I ended up doing, but I figured that due to the length of the trip, it would be easier for me to break it down by the places that I went.


 

Mendoza, Argentina

We began our trip by flying west to Mendoza, a city that is well known in Argentina for its wine districts. We were only there for about a day, but we took advantage of the time by renting bikes and biking around to tour various wineries.

 

Santiago, Chile

From Mendoza, we took an overnight bus through the Andes Mountains to cross the Chilean border and arrive in Santiago. It was interesting for me to spend a few days in Santiago, as it was another city I considered applying to when I began thinking about going abroad. Despite the fact that Santiago and Buenos Aires are both considered to be more modern and westernized major cities in Latin America, to me Santiago was noticeably different due to the fact that it was very American and English-oriented. The malls and stores looked eerily like those in suburban America (my friend and I took advantage of this by getting Dunkin Donuts on various occasions, which we have both missed dearly since arriving in Argentina), and a friend who is studying in Santiago explained to us that throwing random English words into sentences is a very popular practice.

 

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Dunkin Donuts was just one of many American stores and restaurants that we saw in Santiago.

That being said, Santiago definitely still has its own distinct culture, which we took in by trying new foods, experiencing Chilean nightlife, and doing a free walking tour that took us to many of the main points of interest across the city. The walking tour was also fun for me because it provided a refresher on Chile’s tumultuous political history, which I learned about in my First Year Seminar two years ago!

 

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Palacio de La Moneda (the Presidential Palace), where the infamous coup d’état of 1973 that led to 17 years of military dictatorship and state oppression occurred, was one of the most interesting stops on the walking tour to learn about.

Valparaíso, Chile

 

One of my favorite places from the entire trip was Valparaíso, Chile, a colorful port city known for its abundance of street art. We only spent one day exploring Valparaíso, but that was enough time for us to see hundreds of beautiful murals and paintings that lined the streets.

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It is no wonder that Valparaíso is considered an artist’s city—the murals we saw were all unique and carefully crafted.

 

Torres del Paine, Chilean Patagonia

From Santiago, we left the bigger cities for a completely different leg of our trip. We spent about a week and a half in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, home to some of the most breathtaking landscapes that I have seen in my life. Patagonia as a region is geographical diverse, comprised of impressive mountains, crystalline lakes, as well as deserts, pampas, and grasslands. We started by camping several nights in Torres del Paine, a national park known for a hike that leads to three massive rock “towers” (torres) that jut out of a lake. Camping in this area was an amazing experience; our tent was right at the foot of a snow-capped mountain, which meant that we woke up to a pretty impressive view each day.

 

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This sunset in Torres del Paine was definitely something that I won’t soon forget.

 

El Chaltén, Argentine Patagonia

We then crossed the border into Argentine Patagonia, where we traveled to El Chaltén. This small village is more recognizable than one would imagine, as it is home to Mount Fitz Roy, the prominent mountain that is used in the logo of the Patagonia outdoor brand. Seeing this mountain range in person puts the logo to shame, though—it is enormous, with a huge glacier and lake at the base. The views made the 10km hike through the icy wind completely worth it!

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Trying not to blow off the cliff at Mount Fitz Roy.

 

El Calafate, Argentine Patagonia

Our last destination was El Calafate, a fairly touristy town that attracts visitors to another famous national park, this one known for Perito Moreno, a massive glacier that is unusual in the fact that it is advancing, while most other glaciers in the world are retreating. Apparently it is the size of the city of Buenos Aires, a fact that is almost impossible for me to wrap my head around (when I heard this, I imagined taking my 40 minute cross-city bus commute to university, just on top of a glacier). We took a boat that brought us close to the towering wall of the glacier, which stops abruptly in the water. It was mesmerizing to watch and hear huge chunks of ice crack and fall off into the lake.

 

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Photos honestly don’t do the size of the glacier justice!

 

I was really pleased with how the trip turned out, especially considering that we only had a rough outline of what we wanted to do. I was able to see truly incredible sights with some of my closest friends from the semester, which makes for an experience that I will never forget. That being said, I am happy to be back in Buenos Aires and done with sleeping in 6-person hostel dorm rooms! I fly back to Maryland in just 3 days now, so the mix of excitement to be home and the numerous goodbyes that I will say in the upcoming days has created a very bittersweet sense of nostalgia. I truly cannot believe how 6 months here have flown by… the next time I write I will be in the U.S.! I intend to save my packing for the last minute and make the most of my last few days in this wonderful city.

 

 


Jess en France: Falling in Love with Spain

December 16, 2017

I woke up in Grenada, Spain today. It only took about two hours to get here by flight from Paris, but, just like many parts of Europe, every culture you visit finds you in a new world. I get up from my bed in an old hostel and peer out the window to find, even in the dead of winter, a bright sky and a warm, brown Spanish villa across the road. Geographically speaking, Grenada is situated next to the Mediterranean (which explains the heavenly weather) and is greatly influenced by Moroccan culture. In other words, there’s a cultural fusion here that has melded together the most beautiful parts of Islamic architecture with, of course, some Spanish flare. And even though the weather is cooling down a bit, the warmth of Grenadian energy is alive and certainly animating the set of Flamenco dancers I can hear celebrating just down the street.

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I’m only here for about two days, so I set out to discover the town and, fortunately for me, I have a friend studying abroad here who can show me where to go. I first head to the Albaicin neighborhood, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that’s even more famously known for its narrow, winding streets and quaint, white houses spread across the Andalusian hillside. The paths up the hill are paved by cobblestone, and the small streets are lined with homes decorated by soft, fuchsia flowers and overgrown vines. The door to every home in this town is a shade of wild colors, and on occasion you might be able to find a Casanova sitting next to one, serenading the passerbys. It’s truly a romantic place.

 

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I make it to the top of the Albaicin and am struck by the view from the adjacent hillside. Sitting across from the Albaicin is the Alhambra, or Al-Hamra, meaning “The Red One” in Arabic. It’s an ancient, Nasrid-style fortress built in AD 889 that housed the local royalty throughout history. It has also been an inspiration for the many artists and storytellers of the region. This is the first time I’ve seen the Alhambra in full, panoramic view, and it has taken me by surprise by how expansive it is. In the late afternoon sun, the stone of the castle lights up with a reddish hue, and, sitting high above the city below, it resembles what I feel the Statue of Liberty looks like to Americans—a powerful and beautiful symbol of cultural precedence.

I’ve got to find a way to get over there, I thought.

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I begin to make my way down the Albaicin in the direction of the Alhambra, so I can get to the castle before sunset. Shamelessly, I look to Google maps to find my way and eventually stumble upon a hillside path leading in what I hope is the right direction. At the peak of the hill, I come to a massive door, which leads me through a dimly lit tunnel. The walls I can tell were once painted but are now aged and faded with time, much of the artistry curling off in peels like sun-baked bark. As I near the end of the corridor, I’m immediately met with panoramic views of the city—I’ve made it to the castle. I look down at my watch, and it’s only a few minutes past the hour, so I’ve come in time to watch the sun set behind the (other) Sierra Nevadas, the snow-capped mountain range sitting just outside the city. And as if on cue, the sun makes its final descent and hundreds of birds leap into the sky, casting shadows across the terrace as they fly past. I feel lightheartedly envious of the generations of kings who once called this place home and watched this sunset every night. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.

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With no difficulty I’ve fallen in love with Grenada. The only real challenge is trying not to because if this isn’t Eden I’ve found, the real thing can’t be too much different.

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Grenada’s Alhambra by night

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Grenada’s Albaicin neigborhood by day

 


Jeanette in Morocco: A Weekend in Chefchaouen

December 8, 2017

Chefchaouen, known as “the Blue City,” is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Morocco. However, if you want to escape the city for a bit, less than an hour away lies the Akchour Cascades. It’s about a four hour hike with beautiful waterfalls and bouldering paths along the way. Here’s a short travel film of my trip with some friends there last weekend!

 

 

 


Jess en France: Reflections on the Last Day of Class

December 5, 2017

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a student at Sciences Po for over three months now. All the people that I’ve met, countries I’ve gone to, ideas I’ve critically engaged with, and self-reflections I’ve had have brought me to a different person than the one that stepped foot in this country not too long ago.

I’m sure this won’t be the last reflection post I’ll write before I leave France, but in light of my last day of pedagogical instruction here, I thought I’d reflect on my impressions of what studying abroad is like.

Although it always depends on the person or the places or universities you go to, studying abroad, very simply, is hard. I came into it thinking there would be a lot of opportunities to party or have a disproportionate amount of fun in an “exotic” and exciting city (although these weren’t necessarily my own personal goals). But, this is quite the romantic conception of going abroad that I hope to address in a more realistic capacity. Not that having fun isn’t a part of the equation, but study abroad has its equally prevalent challenges. It can often be difficult to assimilate into a new society unless you know the culture and language. That’s normal. In Paris especially, strangers aren’t generally friendly to each other, and I came to realize that I had to redefine my ideas about interpersonal interaction quite drastically. That was by far the most challenging aspect of moving abroad, because I had to find a way to make the city comfortable for me without expecting anyone else welcoming me into it. You learn to grow thick skin, and for a sensitive person like me, this is an important lesson to learn.

Studying abroad isn’t just hard because you have to adjust to a new culture, but it’s also challenging personally. Being abroad puts you in a position where, initially, you can no longer rely on your community or familiar cultural standards to tell you who you are, reference points with which we are used to defining ourselves. For me, my sense of familiarity had to be recreated. So when you don’t have the people or the ideas or the culture to reflect back onto you your conception of self, you find yourself in a tabula-rasa-like state where you are faced with the question of how to define yourself and the things you value (and the things you don’t). That’s a part of the reason why culture shock is often slow to arrive—the things you are familiar with, like the kind of clothes you wear or the way you address the cashier at the store, all things that reaffirm you sense of self in a community, have changed. It’s realized only gradually because getting to know a new place is a gradual process.

Alright, that was a bit complicated, but looking at being abroad as an identity-forming experience helped me finally understand what people mean by “finding oneself” in another country. Particularly in countries that are entirely different culturally, we’re given the chance of having a blank slate (although not entirely) to rebuild our identities. Being abroad has shown me a new array of values and ideas by which people in other societies define themselves. It offered me the occasion to reflect on what ideas, behaviors, or even mannerisms I value and which ones I don’t. I’m not saying that going abroad gives you the chance to go shopping for a new person, but, for me, at least, I grew as an individual from the opportunity to engage more critically with the person I am and how the cultures I’ve lived in have played roles in defining that sense of self.

I’ll reflect some more on the adventure itself of studying abroad and some lessons that I’ve learned in the weeks to come,  but I thought I’d share some thoughts on the personal journey today as my schooling (but not my learning) is coming to an end. I’m going to Granada next weekend, so I’ll be sure to cover that in my next post. It’s still beach weather there (whereas, in Paris, we had our first snow last night).

Updates to come!

Jess


Jeanette in Morocco: Another Beginning

November 30, 2017

My study abroad program is unique in that I get to spend a few months with a homestay family, and then during my 5-week independent study I get to live in an apartment and travel around. As excited as I was to start my project, it was bittersweet leaving my homestay family.

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After our last meal together, I gave them a handwritten letter and some of my favorite photos of us together as a small token of appreciation. My host mom started crying and it made it 10x harder to say goodbye. I’m so grateful for the time we spent together and for being welcomed into a family who made Morocco truly feel like home. I promised them I’ll definitely come back for Friday couscous!

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Welcome to my new apartment! It’s so crazy that my first apartment I’ve ever lived in is in Africa. If someone told me this would be my life two years ago I would have thought they were crazy, but it’s been such an incredible experience. Within a few days of moving in, we decorated the place with string lights and a tapestry to make it feel more like home. Though I certainly miss the delicious food in my homestay, I’m enjoying this glimpse of adulthood.

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Whether I’m in a homestay or in my apartment, I’m just so grateful to be in Morocco and watching sunsets as beautiful as this every night.


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