Meghann in Argentina: “So, How’s Your Spanish?”

November 26, 2017

I have been asked this question innumerable times by friends and family members from back home since arriving in Argentina five months ago. In the past I hadn’t given much thought to the simple inquiry, but now that the end of my time abroad is quickly approaching, I’ve found myself reflecting more and more on how my language skills have progressed. Back in June when I wrote my first pre-departure post, I stated that “my biggest goal is to become fluent in Spanish.” While this still absolutely holds true, during my time here I’ve come to realize just how difficult true fluency in another language is to acquire. Additionally, by no means does living in a country with a different national language for six months (or however long a period of time, really) mean that fluency will come easily—it has to be worked for. In all honesty, I do still speak English all the time, mostly due to the fact that all of my friends here (even those who aren’t from English-speaking countries) speak English perfectly. Since all of us speak English better than we do Spanish, conversing in English is easier and more comfortable to fall into; for my German or French friends, this equates to beneficial practice of their second language, but for me, it doesn’t do much. It’s frustrating to go on trips with friends (where we only speak English) and to come back to my host family or to class feeling like my Spanish skills have diminished because I used them significantly less.


That being said, the prominence of English in the social aspect of my study abroad experience was made clear pretty early on, and fortunately this made me try even harder to improve my Spanish in my homestay, in university, and while out in the city—and it definitely has progressed a ton. Before I arrived in Argentina, I understood a fair amount and could express most ideas/thoughts, but slowly and oftentimes with rough grammar; now, I can understand nearly everything (even the rapid lectures on Argentine politics given by my professors) and discuss any topic as well. Most notably, though, is how much more confident I am with my language skills. I no longer pause when talking to my host mom to think about whether I am using the correct noun or conjugating a verb the right way. I still have a long way to go with Spanish, though. When I return to Richmond in the spring I will take a Spanish literature class, and I also want to try to watch a TV show or the news in Spanish as well, to help ensure that I don’t lose any of the language skills that I have gained here.


My host family has been integral in helping improve my Spanish. Being “forced” to speak Spanish whenever I am at home has given me the opportunity to discuss many different topics that aren’t commonly talked over at school or on the streets.

While the Spanish learning process is different from what I expected it to be in the sense that my social life almost entirely revolves around English, I can still certainly answer the question “so, how’s your Spanish?” with the reply that it has gotten significantly better. Seeing how my language skills have grown over time makes me even more motivated to continue learning after this experience is over.

Jess en France: The One, The Only: The Palais Garnier

November 26, 2017

So I’ve had a dream ever since I was a little girl that I would one day be able to visit the opera house that inspired the novel The Phantom of the Opera. Although I grew up watching the modern remake, I’ve always loved the story-line –it made me fall in love with opera as a kid. The opera house that inspired the film happens to be the Palais Garnier, which located in Paris, and I’ve saved a visit for the end of my exchange as a celebration of the end of an amazing journey.


I bought my tickets months in advance and was able to get the best seat in the house to see an opera called La Clémence de Titus. The seat that I got was in a theater box, which is a private, sectioned off area for some of the best, front-facing seats in the theater. I got a front-row seat in the box and nothing obstructed my view. I would be remiss not to mention that this trip was fully funded by the Office of International Education and its wonderfully generous $500 cultural excursion stipend. It’s allowed me to fulfill a dream of mine that I’ve had for quite some time.


The theater itself is 1,979-seat opera house that was built in 1861. It’s named after its architect, Charles Garnier, and today is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Like I said, it was the setting for Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera (although it’s a bit embarrassing I’ve only seen the film—and the modern one at that). Regardless, the opera house is world-renowned for being an architectural masterpiece. Its Grand Staircase is equally famous along with its theater ceiling, which was only recently painted by artist Marc Chagall in the 1960s (who also caused a bit of a controversy being Russian and not French-born).




The play was equally impressive, especially being that it was my first live opera. I can’t rave enough about the voices of the singers. The level of control they have in their voices is especially apparent in the straight thirty seconds of vibrato they often have to belt at the end of a piece. They’re not wearing microphones (which is standard), and it isn’t needed considering how much their voices carry to every corner of the theater. The opera piece was composed by Mozart in 1791 for the coronation of Leopold II, king of Bohemia (if I’m translating this correctly). The story-line concerns a tragic love affair that, of course, ends in an attempted murder and the king’s forgiving clemency, as the title suggests. It was a stunning performance that left everyone standing in ovation.

I was actually able to get one more ticket to go to the Palais Garnier for a ballet (which I had to buy even earlier in advance). The choreographer is a well-known contemporary dancer, and I’m just as excited to see the opera house one more time before I head back to the States. I’ve officially been able to cross off a life-time bucket-list item, and now I get to say I’ll have done it twice.

A bientôt!


Jeanette in Morocco: Marrakech Adventures

November 23, 2017

Marrakech, one of Morocco’s four imperial cities, is a growing tourist hub. My friends and I spent a long weekend there and adventured around the city’s old Medina. To my surprise, there was a lot more to do than simply sight-seeing and fancy night-time outings.

My two favorite things that weekend were going cliff-diving in Ouzoud, a nearby village that has the tallest waterfall in Africa, and driving ATVs in the nearby Sahara desert!

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This is Ouzoud waterfall, the tallest waterfall in Africa! Our guide, who grew up in the village, told us that during his childhood, it was a right of passage for him and his friends to jump off some of the smaller cliffs.

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This is my friends and I after we dived off the lower cliffs and stopped for a picture on the hike up to the higher cliffs! We spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the cool water and enjoying a gondola boat ride.

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On our way up to lunch, our guide showed us to a small forest with monkeys. He stuck his hand out in front of me with a palm full of nuts to lure the monkey to jump on my head. It was hilarious and the monkeys were so friendly!

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After spending a day in the water, we wanted to get out to the desert. We spent this day riding ATVs around the desert, racing one another, doing donuts, and watching our guide do cool tricks we didn’t dare to try. It was definitely one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had.

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During the middle of our day in the desert, our guide took us to a nearby village for a mint-tea break. We were able to meet some locals, pet donkeys, and hold adorable babies like Zachariah pictured above!

Jeanette in Morocco: Serendipity

November 22, 2017

Throughout my time in Morocco, I’ve met some incredible people all by simply being in the right place at the right time.

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Meet Ahmed! I am currently working on a documentary short film about the threats Morocco’s famous tile industry is facing. One day, my print partner and I were planning to visit an artisan school, but our cab driver mistakenly took us to a pottery shop instead. However, the place was beautiful and still related to our topic, so we decided to stay and explore. We stumbled upon Ahmed, a man who has worked for 40 years in the tile industry and owns multiple shops now. He invited us to sit with him and we ended up staying for hours, drinking coffee, listening to his crazy life stories, and laughing really hard. He even showed us pictures from his 20s when he starred in a movie with Sean Connery! We never got to the artisan school that day, but it has been one of my most memorable days so far.

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Meet Rochdi and Azar! The one thing about being on a SIT field-study program is that your program is made up of only Americans so it can be challenging to get to know locals. However, I think befriending locals and doing local things can provide a more authentic abroad experience. My American friend and I met Rochdi and Azar one random morning on the beach. They offered to watch our bags while we went swimming and then we returned the favor. Then, somehow we ended up staying on the beach until sunset, teaching each other lingo, showing each other music, and laughing at stupid things. They’ve become some of my closest friends in Morocco and I honestly can’t imagine this experience without them!

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Meet Driss and his family! Driss (far left) is the main subject of my documentary. I only had three days to film in the tile factory and it was difficult to pick my subject being that they spoke no English and I know very minimal Arabic. I went with my gut and picked Driss because despite the rigorous, physically demanding work he was doing for hours on end, he never stopped smiling. After visiting his family and learning about their story, I’m confident I made the right choice! I was also moved to tears during some of our interviews when the translator shared with me that his whole family is illiterate and Driss dropped out of school at the age of 7 to start working in the tile industry to support his family. To this day, he is their sole stream of income. I’m so honored to know him.


Jeanette in Morocco: Behind the Scenes of Filmmaking

November 21, 2017

When I first got my camera, I said to my friends I’m excited to see where I take it, but I’m more excited to see where it takes me.

Well, I took it to Morocco, but it’s taken me to the door steps of some incredible opportunities.

I am currently working on a documentary short film to be released at the end of December and serving as the Video Editor for an online publication, Reporting Morocco.

Working as a filmmaker in Morocco hasn’t been easy. I am constantly innovating ways to combat language and cultural barriers. It seems that every time I think I have something figured out, another challenge arises that I could have never predicted. This is the nature of working in an unfamiliar place.

However, these once daunting challenges have taught me a lot. I’ve strengthened my technical skills and enhanced my creative eye, but more importantly, I’ve gained patience, resilience, and adaptability – arguably three of the most important assets for anyone in this field to have.

Here are some photos encapsulating the lessons I’ve learned as a filmmaker in Morocco!

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1) Be prepared! It’s always better to be over-prepared than under-prepared. Before every shoot, I make sure I have three sets of charged batteries, three sets of formatted SD cards, two hard-drives for back-up storage, two microphone sets (shot-gun and lavalier), and two forms of stabilization tools (tripod and gimbal). Without these fundamentals, I wouldn’t be able to achieve the shots I want!

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2) Be adventurous! Filming in a country you’ve only lived in for a short amount of time means there’s a lot you haven’t seen. If you don’t explore, you’ll never know what’s out there that could elevate your creative vision. For a video I shot last month, I grabbed my camera and explored the old medina and surrounding city aimlessly for hours. The footage I shot that day ended up being the introduction in my final cut!

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3) Be adaptable! The photo above is my print partner and I waiting for our subject who was over an hour late to our scheduled interview. Time is a very relaxed notion in Morocco. It is not considered rude to show up late or cancel last minute. Also, the concept of answering within one to three business days does not really exist. As frustrating as it is having to deal with elements out of my control, I’ve slowly come to realize that the only way to be successful here is to adapt to the norms. On my latest shoot, my subject once again showed up late. However, instead of getting flustered, I made effective use of my time by shooting b-roll (supplemental footage) of the environment while I patiently waited for him to arrive.

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4) Be inventive! The photo above shows an interview I shot next to a landfill because it was the only quiet place I could find near the tile factory I was filming. The floor was cold, so we found pieces of old leather and a brick from the landfill to sit on. Not the most conventional set you could say, but it worked! And I ended up getting amazing natural lighting and crisp, echo-less sound from the open space.

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5) Be passionate! In my opinion, this is the most important quality of them all. Technology malfunctions. People flake. Things go wrong. There have been moments where I haven’t loved what I’m doing, but I make a conscious decision to keep going because I am passionate about my work. I am passionate about using creativity as a tool to bridge communities. I am passionate about hearing and sharing meaningful stories. I am passionate about evoking emotion – laughter, tears, and everything in between. I am passionate. And if I’m being honest, without it, I’d be nothing.


Jess en France: It’s Decided—Amsterdam is the Best City on Earth

November 15, 2017

When the sun sets on Amsterdam and its rays reflect off the rain-soaked pavement, the city streets turn into paths of sheer light. So today after the day-long rain, the sunlight reflecting off the pavement became so bright I could hardly see the sidewalk in front of me without squinting my eyes nearly shut. That didn’t help so much since I was exploring the city by bike. But despite the potential crash-factor, cycling in Amsterdam has been one of the most memorable moments of my time studying abroad so far.


I’m here as a tradition with the women’s ultimate Frisbee team. Each year, the juniors who are abroad meet in one city in Europe. Our job while here is to send an email and welcome letter to the freshmen joining the team as well as take pictures in our traditional team poses. I remember seeing the pictures from the last set of juniors meeting in Europe and waiting in eager anticipation of the day I would be able to venture off abroad and continue the traditions myself. It’s certainly a reminder that time passed has passed quickly.


On the first day, my friends and I biked around to get a feel for the city and its culture. The city is much calmer than Paris yet still carries the same level of importance. It’s a city for business people and entrepreneurs, but it’s also open to people of various walks of life. We stayed at a youth hostel in the center of the city, and I heard Spanish, English (of the non-American brand), and French—but little Dutch spoken. Everyone here generally speaks English, and if I didn’t know any better I would’ve thought I was in an Anglophone country. This country is also very open with its values, so many things are legal here that aren’t legal in the US. It makes for a bit of a culture shock, but is interesting nonetheless.


I can’t forget the architecture! After I got to Paris and did some traveling to other cities in Europe, I got it in my head that all cities are more or less the same. I’ve see a lot of the Haussmann architecture, which is virtually the only kind of building in Paris. Amsterdam, however, is something different altogether. It’s more colorful, quirky, and reflects the light-hearted spirit of the city. Some buildings are lopsided, some seem to be missing infrastructure altogether, some of them have colorful facades, and all of them have dizzyingly steep staircases. There are also canals and tunnels all throughout the city. It seems like a theme park in some ways.

The second day, we spent the day visiting museums. We made our way to art museums as well as a heavenly cheese museum. The most memorable of these museums, for me, was the Anne Frank house. I’ve always had an interest in 20th century Europe with a particular interest in WWII history. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to study in Europe—to live in and be surrounded by historical artifacts. Visiting these sites of history is also a must for me every time I visit a new city. I visited Dachau a few weeks ago and now get the chance to visit the former hiding place of the world’s most beloved child author.

As I walked up the steps (steep ones at that) into the former hiding place of the Frank and Van Pels family, the Secret Annex, I felt transported into history. As I walked into Anne’s bedroom the original posters were plastered on the wall, the signs next to them explaining that it was her attempt to make the room seem happier. I had the chance to read some of her diary, and it’s unfathomable to think that a girl, who had been locked away in a house and repulsed by her society, could have thought what she did at her age. But her writing is still relatable; she was a child and had the same impulses and desires of a child. Nevertheless, she spoke with a profound command on her life and the lessons she learned having faced the prospect of death. This museum is a beautiful tribute to an even more beautiful young girl, and, although I didn’t get a chance to capture any pictures, I highly encourage visiting to see it for yourself.

I’m writing this while sitting in the airport. The flight back to Paris is only an hour long, the brevity of which is taking some getting used to. In the states, flying from Richmond to home for me takes six hours and one layover. But that’s also what I appreciate about being in Europe; another historical artifact or another amazing city or mountain range is just a hop, skip, and jump away. I’m not sure where I’ll go next (because finals are coming up, and I have to buckle down to prepare), but hopefully I’ll make it out one more time before I head back to the States for the New Year. It’s almost over! I can hardly believe it.


A la prochaine,


Meghann in Argentina: Heading North

November 13, 2017

Last week I had the amazing opportunity to go on a weeklong trip to northern Argentina with my mom. We took a three-hour flight up to the city of Salta, a provincial capital of the northwestern region, and then continued our journey by taking a road trip in a rental car up la Quebrada de Humuhuaca, a beautiful trail dotted with small pueblos. We got so far north that we were less than 100 miles away from the Bolivian border—and you could tell! Both the geography and the culture were completely disparate from anything that I have experienced in other parts of Argentina thus far. While in Buenos Aires I usually can’t see beyond one city block due to the massive buildings, in the north, at literally every point you look out from you can see gorgeous, colorful mountain ranges (many of which are pre-cordillera, or in other words, “mini Andes mountains”). My mom had to do a lot of nervous driving through mountainous, twisting roads, but the views were well worth it.

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In northern Argentina, the mountains can change from red to green to yellow to purple all within one stunning view.

Even more surprising than the differences in geography, though, was the distinct culture we encountered in all of the little pueblos that we visited (some of which had only a few more than 100 permanent residents). The city of Buenos Aires is well known for being very European; from the architecture to the food to the people, sometimes it feels more like I am in Spain than Latin America. I am really interested in more indigenous cultures, so being exposed to this way of life in the north was a unique experience for me. In many of the pueblos that we visited, the primary way of earning a living is to sell small artesanías, or handicraft work, to visitors. I loved looking at all of the beautiful colors and designs that seem so much more bright and colorful than what I am accustomed to seeing in Buenos Aires.


In the small town of Purmamarca, a market with artesanías opens up every day around the main plaza. Among the most common things I saw were alpaca clothing, tapestries, and tiny wooden carvings.

My favorite day was one that took us from the smallest pueblo we visited to the Salinas Grandes, or salt flats, of Jujuy. My mom and I went with a guide who explained how the salt flats formed and how the industry is important for the indigenous people that live near them (this salt, once iodine is added, is used for human consumption all over Argentina). The best part of the tour in my eyes, though, was that the guide brought his four llamas out into the flats to help carry a picnic for the three of us.


Walking with four cute llamas through a picturesque landscape provided many excellent photo ops.

I feel as though I say this every time I go somewhere new in Argentina, but once again, I am awed by the diversity of this country. Going to the north (and befriending llamas) was definitely another unique experience that I won’t soon forget.

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