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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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!

Jess


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!


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