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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Olivia in Scotland: The Final Countdown

December 7, 2016

Hello everyone!

I finished my classes today (which is Thursday December 1st as I write this). I can hardly believe it. The semesters are shorter here than they are back home and in some ways it really does feel like I just started my classes. I’ve also been behind on my work for several weeks now because I’ve been sick, and today marked the day that I finally caught up and finished my last paper for which I received an extension! It took my first all-nighter of the semester to do it, but it’s done.

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I was very tired in my final 9 AM class this morning, but I was happy to see that they’re making the school buildings look a little more festive for the Christmas season!

The odd thing is, with my English seminars, it isn’t really the end for most people in the course; although the seminars only last one semester, they don’t have their exam until the end of the spring semester, and they meet again to review the material before then. It was a strange feeling to be nearly the only one really leaving. They’re all saying, “See you later,” and I’m saying, “Goodbye.”

It’s hitting me now that I have less than three weeks left before heading back home. In that time, I’m taking two short trips out of the country, writing two exam essays, taking an exam, celebrating Advent with my church, and showing my best friend from back home around Edinburgh when she comes to see me. It’s going to be a jam-packed few weeks! In general, I’m planning to do all I can to see the parts of Edinburgh that I haven’t gotten to see yet and make the most of my time in this lovely city, as well as spend as much time as I can with the friends I have made here. It promises to be a challenge to accomplish all this, but I’m going to try my best to make the people here my priority until I leave. I feel that one of my biggest regrets would be not spending enough time with them.

Now, where am I traveling to, you might ask? Well, one of these trips is starting tomorrow (Friday the 2nd)—I’m going to VENICE! I’ve wanted to go there for as long as I can remember. I hadn’t actually planned to travel there while studying abroad, but I discovered that a couple friends of mine wanted to go there and suddenly my dream started to become a reality. It is absolutely surreal to me that I’m finally going to this place I’ve always dreamed about; hopefully it will feel a little more real to me once I’m actually there! For my other trip, I’m going to Paris after my exams with my best friend from back home. She’ll be here in Edinburgh for a few days and then we’re going to Paris together. That’s the other place I’ve probably wanted to go to the longest so I’m absolutely thrilled, and I can’t believe I get to go there with my best friend. It honestly seems too good to be true.

I wanted to take a moment to reflect and re-center as I enter these final weeks. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how much easier it is to talk about what I’m doing than it is about how I’m feeling. I’m going so many places, writing so many essays, seeing so many people. attending so many church events. There’s plenty to talk about right now on the more surface level of my life. It’s even easier to focus on that in posts like these when the past month has been one of the hardest periods I’ve ever gone through emotionally and I have struggled with how to deal without that. Going through your first breakup anywhere is really hard, but being abroad during that grieving process carries its own unique set of challenges. Although I did a lot of great things and spent time with people I care about, it wasn’t enough to heal my heart or shake the depression I’ve been feeling. However, after all this time in the dark, I think I’m finally beginning to feel the sun coming out again. (It’s ironic for this rather dark and rainy time of year in this country, but it’s true.) I certainly have not arrived anywhere yet, but I know I’m on my way to healing. I also know that I am not, nor have I ever been, alone in this—God has been with me every step of the way. He has been my strength when I had none.

As I move into the final weeks of my study abroad experience, my prayer is that I am able to fully enjoy what I’m doing and be present with the people around me in every place in which I find myself. I want the memories that I carry back home with me to be good and beautiful ones. For me, when I am actually present where I am, that is when I am most able to feel God’s presence, whether that is through a sunset, a city street, or the person across the table from me. It may be through a simple thing, but when I really look around, I can see the hand of the Creator who made it all and feel that he is right there with me. For my trip to Venice, that will probably mean making sure that I put down my camera enough to let the beauty of the place sink in and allow me to appreciate the sweet friendships of those with whom I’m traveling. It can be very hard to stop stressing about getting the perfect picture and be still for a moment. When I do, though, I am finally present in that place and can find God’s presence as well.

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I found these steps on my day trip to Stirling this last weekend: I intend to “be careful” with how I spend the remainder of my time here, and for me, that means looking around and appreciating what is right in front of me.

I will update you all when I return from Venice! (I still can’t believe I’m saying that.) Ciao!


Jack in NZ: Adult-Lite

December 5, 2016

“The autobiographer is almost forced to the conclusion that she pitied herself for being so free” – Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

“White Male Privilege Squandered on Job at Best Buy” – The Onion

Here it is, the‘What I’ve Learned From Studying Abroad’ post:

One of the major questions we all have to contend with is “What do I do with the time I have on Earth?”. Most people have this question answered for them by circumstance. They’ve got mouths to feed, jobs to work, a mortgage to pay off, external circumstances that keep them locked into their lives.

Ostensibly, the more latitude you have in answering this question, the freer and luckier you are. Which would make me, having had essentially no external circumstances that compelled me to do anything (other than publish an occasional blog and get at least a 55% in each of my classes), incredibly free and lucky.

Being free and lucky really sucks. I wish someone had warned me.

“Hey Guys, we’re gonna give you four months of vacation in a beautiful country halfway around the world where your classes are pass/fail, attendance isn’t taken, course materials are all on Blackboard, and you have your expenses pretty much covered by your parents. Don’t slack off.” wink

What did you think we were going to do in this situation? Go to class?

It was like giving a bunch kids the keys to a candy store and telling them not to eat themselves into obesity.

Which is essentially what I did.

I slept in until 11 every day, skipped all but my mandatory labs, only did homework when I absolutely could not put it off any longer, and went out traveling and drinking on the weekends. And the weekends were from Wednesday to Sunday.

A successful day for me involved not rolling around in bed and playing with my phone for an hour before I got up, going for a run, reading a chapter or two of whatever book I felt like reading, and cooking a good meal. I think my single greatest accomplishment was watching all of Game of Thrones.

And this may sound like the best semester ever, but it was incredibly tedious. Somewhere around 20 minutes into the third consecutive episode, it was no longer fun. It was fun in principle, but in practice it was unfulfilling.

But because it was still way more fun in principle than schoolwork or actually publishing a blog on schedule for once, it was easy to keep doing. Keeping the laptop open was the path of least resistance, and there was no external pressure to push me out of the rut.

For the longest time I’ve railed against this sort of external pressure. Expectations that I attend every class drove me up a wall: “Why not just throw the Powerpoint up online and let me learn the material on my own time?”

These sorts of things didn’t just seem inconvenient; they seemed to insult my maturity, my independence. It was as if the professor wasn’t treating me like an adult.

And they were right to. Because if I’ve learned anything from abroad, it’s that I’m still very much a child.

I took my freedom and ran with it. I was a slave to my lizard brain, letting my dopamine system jerk me around from Youtube video to Youtube video, working only when I had to, not really accomplishing any of my loftier goals I brought into the semester.

Faced with infinite free time, ‘writing for an hour everyday’ became, ‘eh, maybe tomorrow, back to GoT’, ‘staying on top of my classes’ became ‘eh, three days before the final is probably enough time to learn a semester’s worth of material’.

In short, I really screwed myself over.

But I think it was ultimately a good thing. As a result, I’ve got a lot more appreciation for what I used to see as unnecessary structure. I can’t wait to get back to Richmond to wake up for 9am’s every morning, I can’t wait to submit regular homework assignments and take a test every 4-6 weeks.

And I now know that when I’m dumped at freedom and adulthood’s doorstep after graduation, I had better have my act together. Working to slowly wean myself from contrived structure and learning to impose my own will ensure I take full advantage of my freedom and my luck.

 

 


Jack in NZ: Screensaver

August 18, 2016

“Day, me say day, me say day, me say day

Me say day, me say day-o” – Harry Belafonte

“Excuse me while I kiss the sky” – Jimi Hendrix

“Nants ingonyama bagithi baba” – Tim Rice

“Tide goes in, tide goes out… you can’t explain that” – Bill ‘Papa Bear’ O’Reilly

I realize that posting a barely-edited 45-minute GoPro video instead of a blog might seem like a copout. In some sense it is. I didn’t have to work very hard on it. I just plunked a camera in the sand and enjoyed the view, no writing required.

But it’s better for both of us this way. I’m not sure I have the linguistic facility to adequately describe what you’re about to see. I didn’t have it after a few hours of tipsy sleep in the beachside cave Thursday night, and I can’t summon it now.

So rather than write a frilly, dramatic, dashed-off-at-the-last-minute description, I’m going spare you my “waking up with shorebirds” and “staring over Earth’s elegant curve at the sunbeams advancing over the horizon” and “utter inner peace” hippy nonsense and let you provide your own.

That being said, please enjoy last Friday’s sunrise at Long Beach:


Jack in NZ: It’s Always Sunny in Dunedin

August 9, 2016

“If we want to know what American normality is – what Americans want to regard as normal – we can trust television”—David Foster Wallace

“Let’s just plop them in front of the TV. I was raised in front of the TV and I turned out TV.” – Homer Simpson

“I don’t think I believe in ‘deep down’. I think that all you are is just the things that you do.” – Diane, Bojack Horseman

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Now I don’t recommend anyone drop out of school to join Netflix University (though tuition is considerably cheaper), but there’s a lot to be learned in a great deal of T.V. programming.

A few examples: Jon Stewart taught an entire generation of young adults that politics could be interesting, that it’s acceptable (even necessary) to call BS when it matters, and that relentless reason can prevail in the face of stupidity. Or consider The Wire: HBO’s crime drama used nuanced characters and a remarkable storyline to shed light on the personal side of drug prohibition and the relationship between police and the communities they serve. And what about Breaking Bad? Walter White forced us to examine our morals, he made us question what we would do if backed into a similar corner, and he ultimately reminded us to cherish our loved-ones.

I could go on.

The point is, when you plop down in a comfy chair to mainline a few hours of entertainment via the occipital lobe, you’re not just watching a bunch of colorful images flash by at 25 frames per second, you’re absorbing ideas, and the extent to which you do this is directly related to how closely you pay attention. If you want to really learn, you have to engage. You have to sit down and watch on a regular basis. You have to catch up when you miss segments.

This makes T.V. shows a lot like college courses.

And just as the first few episodes of a show give the viewer enough information to decide to keep their eyes glued to the boob tube or to log out of Netflix, the first few classes provide the college student with a decent impression of the course.

So here are my reviews of the University of Otago’s 2nd-semester programming:

Environmental Chemistry: This class belongs on HGTV. Very late at night. Guaranteed to bore all but the most enthusiastic viewer, sections of Environmental Chemistry are as about stimulating as watching beige paint dry. One can only hear ‘biogeochemical cycles’ so many times before tuning into a different program. The host is an inoffensive, well-dressed man who is primarily concerned with relaying PowerPoint information on the underlying chemical processes of the dispersal of various minerals in ocean water. I almost fell asleep writing the end of that sentence. That being said, the course is incredibly practical and is likely to impart fundamental information to the dedicated viewer, if they can stay awake through the entire 50-minute segment. Final verdict: Two thumbs way neutral. Enroll if you need it.

rainy view

Conservation Biology Lab: A nature-themed mockumentary set on an Otago peninsula overlook, this lab features the will-they-or-wont-they relationship between an American yellow-eyed penguin researcher, a local Department of Conservation ranger, and the 20 endangered birds they watch over. This week’s episode featured the daring repair of a penguin leg wound by our DoC ranger, and the consequent swooning of the researcher. In addition to awkward, hyper-realistic dialogue, the program treats viewers to wide-angle mountain shots, footage of craggy beaches, and effortless steady-cam recordings through sheep farms (the camera work is so immersive you can almost smell the sheep crap!). The cinematography and hilarious script make the 45 minutes of bus seat reel on either end of programming worth sitting through. Two thumbs way up, take this class!

night time view

Conservation Biology: This class is on too early in the morning for any young adult to watch consistently. Fortunately, episode summaries are available online and give morning-averse enrollees the basic gist. Dedicated fans that tune in regularly are rewarded with compelling (if incredibly depressing) plots about the condition of the environment. Taught by a rotating cast of knowledgeable hosts, this class is Otago’s NOVA: if more people could be bothered to watch it, the world would be a better place. However, this reviewer believes it would be a breach of journalistic ethics to pass judgment on a program he’s only seen twice. Review: N/A.

view from the roof

Creative Non-Fiction Tutorial: an eccentric host and diverse cast of contestants make this tutorial fit for Bravo. The earnest performance and genuine humor of host Paul Tankard make seemingly-dull program segments like ‘Let’s Outline All the Different Sources Consulted in Chapter 11 of Stiff by Marry Roach, I Found 25, See How Many You Find’ (or as some refer to it: LOATDSCIC11OSBMRIF25SHMYF) shine. This show promises to build toward an exciting climax as each student completes different challenges each week while working toward a final project. The only thing that could spice up CN-FT would be a weekly elimination round. Two thumbs way up, take this class!

melting snow

Creative Non-fiction: Long-winded dramatic monologs and Spartan use of technology make this class a treat for the writing aficionado. The verbose and enthusiastic Australian lead performs for an enrapt audience, providing advice for budding writers with sprinklings of endearing anecdotes from his bushy-bearded mouth. The Joy of Painting meets Hamlet. Take this class.

Environmental Chemistry lab: Fear not University of Otago Masochist Society, have we got a show for you! If you love the sound of a clock endlessly ticking amid keyboard clickclackery, the incessant flare of fluorescent lighting and computer screens, and the belaboring of basic statistics to the point of insanity, you will love 204 labs! To boot, it’s only on during Friday afternoons from 2-6! And get this: You get to watch other people driving home to have fun out of the meager classroom window while you clickclack away in Microsoft excel! Perhaps this is some sort of edgy, artistic, post-Lynchian program designed to make the viewer uncomfortable, to push their buttons, and to anger and confuse. If that’s the case, it succeeds on all fronts. Alas, it’s mandatory! Going to this lab feels like that one scene from A Clockwork Orange. Without any Beethoven. Two thumbs way down.

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Overall, the University of Otago network offers great programming in a style totally different from its American counterparts, and if you keep your eyes glued to the screen, you’ll certainly learn something.

Just make sure to go outside and play in between shows.


Jack in New Zealand: Yugen

July 7, 2016

“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds. And, subtle shadows of bamboo on bamboo.” Zeami Motokiyo

“Discuss your preparations to go abroad – how you are feeling, anxieties or excitements, last minute projects or plans you are making, etc.” UR OIE

How do I feel about going abroad? I think this question is a little vague. I’m fairly confident that the UR Travelogue coordinator is referring specifically to the four months I will spend at the University of Otago in NZ working toward my Biology degree when he says ‘abroad’, but after several months (and in some cases, years) of students and OIE faculty throwing around the term, it’s difficult to nail down a precise definition.

If returning students and previous travel bloggers are to be believed, ‘abroad’ means ‘the best semester of college’ and ‘learning and growing’ and ‘OMFG amazing’ in so many words. If the OIE is the defining authority, then ‘abroad’ means ‘cultural exchange’ and ‘horizon broadening’ and ‘a lot of paperwork’. Even friends and family (individuals keenly aware of my specific plans) reduce ‘abroad’ to banalisms like ‘so much fun’ and ‘independence’ and ‘legally imbibing alcohol’.

‘Abroad’ has been consistently built up over the past months to mean all of these things, and while I believe everyone’s definitions come from a genuine source (perhaps from their own life-changing international study experiences, and their desires for me to have the same), I think it’s impossible for these definitions to truly encompass the ‘study abroad experience’. Each seems a little too trite to be true, and with students attending programs around the world, ‘abroad’ cannot possibly begin to define the experiences of every student.

So it’s quite difficult for me to pin down exactly how I feel about ‘abroad’. I think I’ve decided I don’t feel much about it at all. ‘Abroad’ is going to just sort of happen to me. And that’s the way I’d prefer it.

My preparations for abroad have been almost entirely practical, concentrating on packing my backpacks, leaving behind any definitional baggage that could serve as a template or filter for my experience. A laundry list of expectations will only serve to make me anxious, distance me from the present moment, and prevent me from truly marveling at my experience. A constant stream of ‘is this the best semester I’ve had so far?’, ‘am I experiencing enough cultural exchange?’, ‘am I taking enough advantage of my ability to legally imbibe?’ will prevent me from experiencing what it truly means to ‘go abroad’.

That being said, if I have any hopes for abroad, it’s that my friends, family, and the OIE turn out to be entirely right. I want to return in December to find that the only way to fully describe my experience is ‘OMFG it was so awesome’. I want the trite travel-bloggisms to be true. I want an experience so complex and amazing that I am reduced to spewing positive unintellectual platitudes upon my return, and really and truly mean them.

But in the mean time, this blog will be concerned with the experience as it happens, free from definitional filters and expectations. It may be occasionally trite. It may sarcastically spite its own triteness. Above all, I hope it will be an honest and entertaining accounting of my experience. You’ll get a sense of how I feel about my own personal ‘abroad’ along the way.


Emily in Samoa: Return to Return to Paradise

March 24, 2016

This weekend, my friend got married.

We got a call from a Peace Corps volunteer, formerly in SIT, telling us that the Return to Paradise resort was looking for “travel-savvy, foreign-looking people” to feature in its new website and advertising campaign. They offered a free night, all expenses paid, at the resort as a perk. We were curious about what we might be getting ourselves into, and a group of us agreed to go.

 

Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails

Mastering the spontaneous smile over cocktails

 

We were told to expect bikini photos on the beach. However, when we arrived, the photographer told us that the clouds made that plan impossible, and that we would instead have a wedding. We started by shooting photos of the bar, sipping specialty cocktails and showing the camera how much we were enjoying ourselves. Next, we moved to romantic dinner photos, and the chosen couple sat out in a private fale on the rocks as a drone flew around them taking candids. The rest of us were supposed to be continuing our background bar banter, but were peeking out at the couple and the photographer.

 

Spying on the newlyweds

Spying on the newlyweds

 

Things really heated up the next day, when we shot the wedding. Our poor friend who was picked for the bride spent the whole morning posing for photos: sitting, standing, looking at a wedding dress, getting makeup done, having a head massage (only enough for photos), and…getting married. Barefoot on the beach, we surrounded her and the Peace Corps volunteer, looking down at a heart made from hibiscus flowers.

At the last minute, the photographer realized he’d forgotten to find a pastor, and snagged a nearby gardener. “Here,” he said. “Open the bible and pretend you’re reading.” Various romantic photos were taken, but my favorite is the one of the kiss, chiefly because of our gardener/pastor, who has his eyebrows raised and mouth open.

 

Capturing the wedding vows

Capturing the wedding vows

 

wedding

 

After the wedding, the photographer ordered us to go out to the rocks, and we danced as the drone flew above us. I think these are some of our best photos, though also our strangest.

This was one of the most unexpected, bizarre experiences I’ve had in Samoa, but it isn’t the first time that SIT students have done something like this. Samoa’s foreign tourism is not big yet, numbering only around 20,000 non-Samoan tourists per year. And young, foreign-looking people are few and far-between; besides Peace Corps, SIT, and actual honeymooners, options are minimal.

But the biggest question arising out of this whole ordeal, for me, is “is this culturally OK?” Overall, I have my doubts, but I’ve decided to try to argue for a yes for this specific case. The Return to Paradise is owned partly by locals (not part of Hilton, Marriot, and friends), and has a policy of hiring two members from each household in surrounding villages. These higher hotel wages are a huge stimulant for the local economy, since minimum wage in other job venues is a dismal $2.33 per hour, under $1 US. And because of low wages and little surplus other than that sent in remittances, it makes sense that the hotel would be catering to wealthier New Zealanders and Australians, a population that is largely white and “foreign-looking” to the Samoans.

 

The coastline by the Return to Paradise

The coastline by the Return to Paradise

 

The next factor that leads me to a “yes” is the movie Return to Paradise, which was filmed on the site and which gave rise to the hotel. This film starred Gary Cooper, and was shot in the 1950s. Return to Paradise marked the first instance in which local indigenous people played leading roles, and parts were not filled by white people in blackface. The female lead was played by a bank teller from Apia, and if you watch the film with people in nearby villages, most will point out a number of aunts and uncles. So, the film is looked upon positively by locals, as it promoted their culture more positively than other films would have, and encouraged local involvement.

Finally, there is Us. Were we right to do this? The hotel probably spent over $600 Samoan on each of us, so the owners really wanted our pictures. And afterward, they plan to put my friends’ wedding photos on billboards and foreign advertisements. So there was definitely a lot of people-using-people going on here. But, if we had not come, they probably would have found someone else, someone who would not reflect back on the experience, taking the perks and moving on with life. I think that is the most dangerous scenario, and so I am glad that a group of students studying cultural issues in the Pacific agreed to the shoot.

The conversation about this should continue, since I’m still not sure what to think. I certainly enjoyed my first beach wedding, and will never look at the people in hotel photos the same way again. And I hope that this weekend of cheesy photos and questionable ethics will do something positive for locals in the end.

 

Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony

Our bride mentally prepares for her ceremony

 


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