Justine in Russia: City-As-School

February 15, 2018

*Title is inspired by a high school in my city that I wish I went to, just because of the name. (City-As-School)

My study abroad program (CIEE) puts a big emphasis on getting us involved in the community and the city as much as possible, through excursions, interest groups, and even our classes. On Sunday, we all went on an excursion to the The State Hermitage Museum. The State Hermitage Museum actually has many buildings/parts, but we only visited part of the Winter Palace that day.

Here are some pictures from the excursion (note: none of these pictures are edited, it is actually that amazing in there)

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All taken inside the Winter Palace.

 

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Well, I did not want to post any faces of my peers without their permission, so this photo is edited.

 

This weekend, I also had the opportunity (and the excuse) to explore the city to my liking without having worry about to calling my host grandmother because she went skiing for half the day (yes, you read that correctly). I took the metro to Petrogradsky District (one of the “islands” in Saint Petersburg) and explored a bit. My first stop was the Saint Petersburg Mosque, which has been the top place on my bucket list for the past five years. The fact that it was snowing that day, made the experience even better. There is something about the snow that makes this city a lot quieter. Places like the Saint Petersburg Mosque and the Winter Palace really make me stop and think about how lucky I am to be able to be studying here. As for the snow, it does not really bother me as much as it does when I am at home.

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The exterior of the Saint Petersburg Mosque on Petrogradsky Island.

 

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The Neva River, which is currently iced over and covered in snow.

As for my classes, my electives started this week and I have only been to each of them twice so far, but I am really looking forward to the rest of the semester (as cliché as it sounds). My electives are: Russian Civilization: Popular Stereotypes and Social BehaviorGender and Sexuality in Russia, and Intercultural Communication & Leadership. 

In one way or another, all the classes overlap since they all discuss the culture of this city and country. Even outside of my classes, I feel like I am learning a lot about the culture of this city, when it comes to things like the metro, restaurants, etiquette, body language, etc. This city and country is not as stone-cold as depicted in the media, which I really wish put this country in a more positive light. Even with my extremely limited Russian, I have only had positive interactions with locals and am really feeling at ease with my life here so far.

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My host mother, Luda or Lyudmila (Люда or Люмила) preparing tomorrow’s supper.

My understanding of my host mother also increases each and every day because there are words she constantly uses, but I am too shy to ask her to repeat. Also, she notices when I newly understand the meaning of how to use a word and she’s pretty happy with me. I was a little worried about living with just one person, but I actually really enjoy it. She’s really patient and really nice, but sometimes I wish I could help her around the house! She does not let me do dishes and every time I ask her if I can help, she tells me how I am a guest in her home. She says her job is to take care of the home, while my “job” is to study, explore, visit museums, etc. One of these days, I’ll finally do the dishes when she is not home and I’ll talk all about it. However, that wasn’t today, so I will see you next week around the same time.

P.S: for the people who are curious about the weather here….

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До скорой встречи (see you soon).


Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин

 

 

 


Justine in Russia: Week 1!

February 7, 2018

Hi! It’s been able a week since I arrived in Saint Petersburg.  I’m a little surprised at how much and how little time I’ve spent here so far (makes no sense, but let me elaborate).

My first day in Saint Petersburg was not actually in the city, but instead at a hotel in the outskirts of the city, next to Pulkovo International Airport. CIEE holds orientation at the hotel for the first two days and depending on our housing situations, we all leave the hotel separately. The first days were stressful because the people who chose to live with a host family, were not given any information about them up until the day we arrived. I found out that my host family was just one person named Lyudmila, who was most likely going to be a grandma. I was not afraid of the fact that she was an older woman, but I was afraid of our language barrier considering I only know 1 semester of Russian.

 

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My hotel room (during orientation)

 


At the end of our two long days of orientation, it was finally time for us to be picked up by our host families. I finally met Lyudmila (she insists I call her Lyuda). I was terrified as I walked out to meet her, but everything turned out to be fine. I found out that she has hosted students with zero knowledge of Russian, which is a bit interesting to me considering she only knows a few words in English (like mushroom, chicken, day, morning). 

So far, we understand each other alright. I would say I understand 80% of her sentences, but occasionally I do have to pull out Yandex Translate (not Google) in order to respond to her. We have breakfast and dinner together every night (all 3 meals on weekends), and I have enjoyed our conversations so far. About 20% of our meals are just us smiling at each other, but it’s okay. I got a bit sad my second night here because I really wish that I am able to talk to her more about her life, but she said it’s completely normal for me to not know much right now. As days go by, I am able to talk to her more since I have language class almost everyday and I am happy with my progress so far.

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My bedroom in my host mother’s apartment!

An interesting thing I realized the past week is that Saint Petersburg has about 5 million residents, but I found the city to be extremely quiet. There are tons of people walking around and tons of cars/buses/trolleybuses going up and down the streets, but there is something extremely peaceful about the city. The only downside to this city so far is that there is so much snow to the point that the sidewalks are completely iced over and I even see locals slipping and falling (I fell only twice so far). My apartment is close to the city center, but far enough for it to be non-touristy.

As for the city, I have not explored much so far, but I did go to The Church of the Savior on Blood. I am not going to try to describe how this place blew me away, so I’ll just provide pictures of it.

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Outside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.

 

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The ceilings inside the The Church of the Savior on Blood.

 


My commute to school is approximately 40 minutes, but I am used to longer commutes since I am from New York City. We actually did not have class the first day of school, but we did have our language placement exams. I actually placed into Intermediate I (equivalent to 201), which I was happy about since I did not really review at all the past 1.5 months of winter break.

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I’m sorry, no one told me I would be going to school in a PALACE.

So far, I’m really enjoying this city, but there are still many things I have not done nor have I seen and I am really looking forward to sharing my experiences.

До скорой встречи (see you soon).


Justine G.

Жюстин, not Джастин


Meghann in Argentina: Trip to Córdoba

July 31, 2017

Due to the fact that we have almost two weeks of down time between the end of my three-week Spanish pre-semester course and the first day of orientation, some friends and I decided to use this time to our advantage and take our first trip outside of Buenos Aires. We opted for Córdoba, a city located about 10 hours northwest of Buenos Aires by bus (this distance is considered short by Argentine standards—until I looked at the length of bus trips, I didn’t fully realize just how massive this country is!). Córdoba is home to beautiful Spanish architecture and amazing Jesuit churches, and is the second biggest city in Argentina. Don’t let that size fool you, though—Buenos Aires still has about 12 million more people, so in comparison Córdoba seemed tiny.

 

It was refreshing to get a short break from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. We spent the majority of our four days exploring the city, walking through the cobblestone streets and taking in the colonial architecture. We even stumbled upon a baptism in La Catedral (the oldest church in continuous service in the country) and a mass in a beautiful Jesuit church—although I couldn’t quite keep up with religious services in Spanish, it was still a cool experience to witness them.

 

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The Jesuit church where we sat through part of a mass on Sunday afternoon.

 

By far the best part of the whole trip, however, was a daylong biking tour through the Sierra mountain range. Our awesome guide Juan (who we discovered on TripAdvisor and were drawn to due to glowing reviews) drove us about an hour outside of the city to a small pueblo where we began the tour. Although parts of the trip were fairly grueling for most of us (Juan was the only one who had no trouble zipping up the steep hills), the views of the mountains and the historical sites we stopped at were well worth the workout. My favorite stop was a small Jesuit church in the hills of Candonga, an area where travelers coming by mule from Buenos Aires to the north of the country would stop after weeks of travel and switch out their mules—Juan told us that in some older and more colloquial form of Spanish, Candonga translates to “tired mule.”

 

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Juan very much enjoyed taking GoPro pictures of us throughout the trip.

 

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The one-roomed Jesuit church perched quietly in the Sierras.

 

Our day ended back in the small pueblo that we began in. Juan invited us onto the porch of an old couple that he got to know because he biked by their home so often; he told us that their friendly “holas” quickly turned to friendship, and now every one of his biking tours ends with the couple welcoming strangers into their home for mate (a classic Argentine tea that is shared by passing the gourd it is served in around in a circle) and pastries. If this isn’t an example of how friendly and gracious Argentine people are, I don’t know what is. Elsa, the cute old woman, served us delicious cookies and prepared mate for us as she chattered on about how much her pueblo has grown and changed since her childhood.

 

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Talking with Elsa on her porch.

 

Overall, our trip to Córdoba was very refreshing; the small-city feel and our interactions with such kind people like Juan and Elsa made me excited to see what other cities in Argentina have to offer. That being said, I am excited to be back in Buenos Aires and for university to finally start!


Janus in Singapore: Which God?

March 20, 2017

The Cathedral of the Good Shepherd – Singapore’s oldest church, right across from the SMU Library

Something struck me when I was going through the various photos I’ve collected from my time here in Singapore – there are quite a number of religious buildings in the city. I’ve never thought of Singapore as a particularly holy place, unlike certain parts of China or the Philippines that I’ve been to with comparable numbers of religious buildings, nor did I think that an extremely industrialized and advanced city would have such a strong presence.
There are five religions that have a significant presence in Singapore. According to the 2015 census, 33% of Singaporeans practice Buddhism, 18.8% practice Christianity, 14% practice Islam, 11% practice Taoism, and 5% practice Hinduism. These numbers make sense to me; a majority of Singaporeans are Han Chinese, with Malay and Indian groups representing about 10% of the population, each. It makes sense that Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, and Hinduism play such a big role in the lives of Singaporeans – these religions are the religions in the various ancestral homes of the people living in this city.

The Masjid Sultan

I didn’t expect such a large Christian presence, though. While I was in China, I didn’t encounter many Chinese Christians, nor do I know of a large enough presence of Christianity in Malay and Indian countries that could explain the 18.8% figure, a percentage that has apparently increased in recent years. According to census figures, 12.7% of the population was Christian in 1990 and 146% in 2000. While one I can understand that there should be a a small presence – Singapore, after all, was a British colony – I’m not quite sure why Christianity has a growing presence. You would expect that the Singaporeans’ ties to religions more closely related to their ancestral homes would increase in popularity, rather than a religion that was introduced by foreigners that no longer have a strong hold on the country.

One of the larger Buddhist temples/museums in Chinatown

Another interesting aspect of religion in Singapore is that the number of highly educated Singaporeans practicing a religion, particularly for Taoism, Hindiusm, and Islam, is increasingly noticeably. This goes counter against a fairly commonly observed phenomenon where religion becomes less and less important the higher the level of education. I’ve seen this myself at SMU – the various religious clubs are very active in the community, and it isn’t uncommon for me to run into classmates at Sunday masses during the weekends, or even the odd weekday mass that I attend. Practicing my Catholic faith has definitely been much more easy to do in Singapore, simply due to the number of parishes that make it almost impossible to not attend Sunday mass. There’s a church a 10-minute walk away from my flat, and on weekdays or Sundays spent at the library, Singapore’s oldest cathedral is simply across the street.
There’s much more to learn about religious life in Singapore, particularly for the non-Christian religions. While I feel like I’ve touched the surface of what can be learned – living in Little India lets me experience many of the Hindu religious holidays, my many visits to Chinatown have allowed me to enjoy the various Buddhist temples, and the largest mosque happens to be on my favorite food street in Singapore – I do plan to eventually attend a service for each of the major religions in Singapore. It’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t necessarily have elsewhere, and my fellow exchange students who have done the same say that it’s a truly interesting experience to have.

Decorations outside a Hindu building in Little India, a minute or two’s walk from home.

St. Joseph’s Church – another relatively large Church in Singapore. Unfortunately, the building isn’t very well kept, and almost seems like a relic of a past decade.


Olivia in Scotland: How Far I’ll Go

January 12, 2017

Hello everyone!

I’m back in the United States now. There are times when that’s still not real to me yet; you could say that my head carried some of the fog home from Edinburgh and it hasn’t quite cleared yet. In the midst of the readjustment and the holiday season, however, I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned from my past few months abroad. Here are ten things I’ve learned about travel, about myself, and about life, in no particular order!

  1. I love discovering new places more than I ever realized I did. I found out that the walking and navigating aspect of travel is really fun for me; I like learning where things are and feeling like I’ve at least sort of figured out how to get around a city before I leave it. I never traveled to a place I didn’t like while I was abroad. There were things to enjoy everywhere I went.
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    Here’s a picture from one trip that I didn’t get to talk much about in my blog posts— I took a day trip to Stirling, which is about an hour away from Edinburgh. It’s a pretty small city, but it has an amazing castle and is surrounded by beautiful hills. It actually reminded me of a mountain town where some of my family lives back in the States.

    Like other study abroad students, I feel that this time away has given me the travel bug. It will be hard not traveling as much in the spring, but I also think it has expanded my horizons as I think about my future. Seeing new places helped me see new possibilities for my own life and helped me see how much I like traveling.

  2. I would always rather travel with other people than travel alone. My 4-day sojourn in London taught me that. I love being along for shorter periods of time, like my last morning in Paris, for instance, but I do not enjoy being alone for extended trips. It shaped how I traveled for the remainder of my time abroad and I’m glad of that.
  3. I love living near hills. This is a bit of a random one, but it’s true! To me, living near a big hill or a mountain feels like having something to rest your back against. I might feel connected to hilly places this way because my family has roots in the mountains. Ideally, though, I would love to live in a city like Edinburgh that has both hills and sea so close together.

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    It somehow felt comforting that Arthur’s Seat and the Crags were so close to where I lived this semester (those are the hills you can see behind the buildings). I don’t totally know why, but ut made it feel even more like home. 

  4. Sometimes bad things happen, maybe even your worst nightmare, but it’s not the end of the world. When I think about the tickets I messed up, the things I forgot, the transatlantic flight I missed, and so many other things, I am surprised that I made it home. More often than not, though, I found that there were things I could do to clean up the mess I made. That doesn’t mean that my mistakes didn’t cause me trouble, but I think that I learned more about being a responsible adult through my mistakes. When you’re on your own, you do have to clean up your mess yourself—but it’s more doable than you might think.
  5. Sometimes bad things happen, maybe even your worst nightmare, but you survive. Nope, I didn’t accidentally make the same point twice. This is about the things that happen that you can’t control. So many things happened that were abroad that were beyond my control, whether that had to do with sickness, relationships, or deaths. Life hit me hard while I was away. But, every day, the sun came up. I saw over and over again that the circumstances of my life do not stop the world from spinning. They make life painful, they make it a struggle, but they don’t have to define everything about you. For me, this meant giving each day to God and asking Him to help me through. Today, by the grace of God, I’m still here.
  6. You can go through the most difficult time you’ve ever gone through and still come out of it with amazing memories. Even as I look back through my various journal entries and blog posts and clearly see how much pain I went through, I also know that I legitimately enjoyed so much about this past semester. I know that it was absolutely worth it for me to go abroad. The people I met and the places I got to explore were truly unforgettable, and I feel so privileged to have gotten to experience all of this.
  7. Travel means encountering the unexpected. Sometimes you’ll be happy with the results, and sometimes you won’t be. For example, I was pleasantly surprised when I hardly ran into any rain during my travels through the stereotypically rainy U.K., but a little disappointed when my trips to Italy and France weren’t much warmer than Edinburgh (and sometimes substantially colder!). You might enjoy some major tourist sites more or less than you expected to. That’s all okay—it’s part of what transforms your travel from a mere trip into an adventure.

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    I didn’t enjoy learning about Loch Ness as much as I expected to and I didn’t like the ultra-touristy atmosphere there. However, I also didn’t expect the loch to be quite so beautiful! I ended up getting one of my favorite pictures from the trip there. 

  8. You can find family all over the world. These might be people with whom you share a common background or interest, or it might just be people who are going through something similar to you with whom you find understanding. Either way, these people are the ones who bring warmth and light to your journey once you find them.

 

 

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Here are two of those people for me! My Friends Gianna and Tyler and I share similar faith backgrounds. As brothers and sisters in Christ, that gave us a strong bond and helped us be there for each other when we needed it. It makes saying goodbye harder, which is what we were doing in this picture, but it’s still a treasure to know that I have these family members praying for me in their own corners of the world.

9. Feel what you’re feeling and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for that. I’ve talked a lot about this, but I’m still learning the importance of this now as I go through culture shock returning to the US. Wherever you might be, don’t tell yourself what you’re supposed to be feeling or not feeling; think, talk, create, whatever helps you to process and understand what you’re feeling, rather than become desensitized or let emotions build up. That will only hurt you and keep you from growing!

10. Travel makes some things less scary than they were before and does the reverse with other things. Before studying abroad, I was much more scared of traveling alone or living in a city where I didn’t know anyone than I am now. So many of the logistical things that intimidated me so much before no longer do so. To explain the scarier things, though, I’ll tell you a story.

On my last morning of my trip to Paris, I realized something. I had decided to go to Notre Dame before flying back to Edinburgh. I had already been inside once, but it was just so beautiful, and it seemed like a good place for sorting through all the things I was feeling on that particular morning. I walked alone through the streets, over the bridges, past the cotton candy clouds, until I got to the imposing cathedral. As I sat inside, it hit me: I’m less scared of staying here, in a country where I don’t even speak their language, than I am of going back home.

It seemed so strange. I could never have seen myself saying something like that just a few short months ago, and why should I be so scared to go home? Well, there were a lot of reasons for that—I was terrified of how I might feel while readjusting to life at home—but so much of that fear was because I’m not the same person I was when I left the United States back in September. I have become someone new. This new person is more independent while simultaneously knowing how much she needs people; she’s not afraid of traveling alone, she’s experienced so many new things, and she’s been through the refining fire of heartbreak. That morning, much of what weighed on my mind was how to be this new person in the old, familiar places, around people I already know. Would I be able to be a new person and still keep the friendships I had before? I knew that this was something many study abroad students face, but in that moment it still felt impossible.

I sat in the cathedral for a few more minutes, soaking in the atmosphere of the sacred space. I pulled out my phone to read a little bit of Psalm 84, which talks about the sanctuary of God’s presence and how blessed those people are who trust in Him even through the difficult times of their journey. What came to me then was a glimmer of peace: a sense that, while it would be difficult, I wouldn’t be alone. I recalled my belief that the same God to whom this awe-inspiring cathedral was built would actually be with me all the way across the ocean. If anyone can handle the impossible, it would be Him. As I walked back out into the rosy morning, I felt the strength I had drawn from what I believed to be God’s presence in that place stay with me, pushing me forward and into the unknown. With Him beside me, I can face the old and the new, and there’s no telling how far I’ll go.

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Beautiful Paris Morning, walking into a hopeful future 🙂

That’s all for my life lessons, folks! We’re coming to the end of this final blog post. If you want to hear a playlist of all the songs from my blog post titles this semester—because all but one of my titles were from songs—you can listen to that here! (Good on you if you caught on to the song titles trope already.)And now, I’ll close this post with a few pictures from my last days in Edinburgh, where I took pictures of some things I would miss about the city. I loved living here so much and will definitely be back someday soon.

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Bustling Princes Street and the majestic Scott Monument, with or without the Christmas Market

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The colorful door to my flat!

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The Georgian architecture and general feel of New Town, where I spent a lot of time with my church.

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Lovely Old Town and the lights on Edinburgh Castle at night!

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Possibly most important: THE TEA!

Thank you for being a part of my journey this semester! I hope you’ve been encouraged to explore, to feel, and to appreciate the people and places around you, whether you’re at home or abroad.

As the Scots would say—cheers!


Olivia in Scotland: Hello, Goodbye

December 29, 2016

Hello everyone!

These past few weeks have been crazy, full of finals, reunions, journeys, and farewells. I even traveled from Edinburgh to Paris and back to Edinburgh again before returning to the United States. Before I write one last post reflecting on my time abroad in general, I wanted to take this time to tell you about how my final weeks have been.

Finals: Honestly, it was very difficult to muster up the motivation to work when there were so many places and, more importantly, people I wanted to see. I had one final exam on Saturday the 10th and spent the following week working on my two final exam essays for my English seminars. My solution to the problem of my academic burnout and the need to spend time with friends was primarily to see people during the afternoon/evening and then stay up late at night working on my essays—it was a weird schedule, but it worked for me. I finished my last essay with 12 hours to spare, and I have to tell you, it was a great feeling.

Reunions: In addition to wanting to spend time with all the friends I’ve made here in Edinburgh, I also saw a few friends from home during my last two weeks. I met up with a couple fellow Spiders on Monday and Tuesday of my exam week. It was wonderful to see these friends and start getting excited about being back on campus. In the midst of all my mixed emotions about returning home, it was helpful to remember the great things and people I have waiting for me back in Richmond. In addition to these Spider friends, on that Wednesday night, my best friend Taylor from my hometown arrived here in Edinburgh to visit me!

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Hot chocolate + reunion with an old friend = huge smiles 🙂

Journeys: After I finished my final essays late on that Thursday night, I got to spend the next few days showing Taylor the sights of Edinburgh. It was great having a friend in town during my last full days in the city because it always gives you extra motivation to go out and really see the city. Here are some  of the highlights from those few days:

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We went to see the Scottish National Ballet perform Hansel and Gretel–it was AMAZING!

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I introduced Taylor to Indian food for the first time ever! There is a lot of good Indian food in Edinburgh (which I’m really going to miss back home). You might not think it from her face here, but she loved it as much as I did. 

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We visited the Royal Yacht Britannia, which the Queen used to use to sail around the world before it was retired in 1997.

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We visited Leith, the norther part of the city that borders the Firth of Forth. It was a beautiful place to see one of my last Edinburgh sunsets.

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I finally had a full Scottish breakfast! This is a signature thing to do in Scotland. This one featured haggis, a tattie scone, a grilled tomato, toast, beans, sausage, a fried egg, and mushrooms. It was quite good!

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I got to climb up Arthur’s Seat one last time with Taylor on that Sunday morning. Spectacular views of a spectacular city ❤

After all our Edinburgh sightseeing, Taylor and I flew to PARIS together on Sunday night! We had two full days there and saw some absolutely beautiful things. This was our first trip to Paris for both of us, and it was incredibly surreal to be walking around Paris with such an old friend. I’m so glad we got to have this trip together. I could talk about this trip for a very long time—we saw a lot in a very short period of time, and it was truly amazing to go somewhere that you’ve heard about and seen in the movies your entire life. Here are just some of the highlights from that journey:

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Notre Dame, a.k.a. one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Its beauty is truly awesome. 

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Freezing, but we did the thing—we saw the tower, waited in line, and went up!

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The Palais Garnier, also known as the Paris Opera House! I have dreamed of going here for years because it is the setting of Phantom of the Opera. On Box 5, there is a sign calling it the Phantom of the Opera’s box. I pretty much died of happiness. 

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I spent my last morning in Paris walking alone by the Seine near Notre Dame. There were pink fluffy clouds floating along that you can see here, and it looked just like something out of a movie or off of a postcard. 

Farewells: On the Sunday night before Taylor and I flew to Paris, we attended my final Sunday service at my church in Edinburgh. It was a carol service and it was very special. I had the privilege of being involved in the music for it, and it was nice to participate so much on my last Sunday there with the people I have played music with this semester. I could hardly believe as I sat there that I might never see the people in that room again on this earth. As bittersweet as that service was, however, I know that I will see those people again eventually, in the next world if not this one.

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Some of my closest church friends whom I will miss very much. The three of us actually performed an a capella version of The Little Drummer Boy at that last service, which was a really fun way to end our time together. 

Saying goodbye to my friends and to this city was difficult. It was odd to be bidding these friends farewell even as I was also being reunited with several friends from back home. I felt so torn between the two worlds. I wish it was possible for me to combine both of them and have all the people I love in one place—if only the world worked that way. Even with my final trips of the semester, I felt as though I had to say “hello” and “goodbye” in the same breath to the places I was visiting, like Paris. In any case, though, I feel so blessed to have made such wonderful friends in Edinburgh and to have seen so many beautiful places, and I am also excited to spend time with my family and see my friends back in Richmond again.

Actually, it was so hard to say goodbye to Edinburgh that I almost failed to do so. Remember that post back in the beginning of my time abroad where I mixed up a lot of dates and times and had to switch trains and all of that with my trips to London? I’ve been pretty honest about my travel mistakes on this blog. Well, I made the biggest travel mistake yet the other day: I missed my flight home. Yep. Just imagine the heart attack I had when that happened. Thankfully, and I still don’t know how, the United airlines staff switched me to the exact same flight the following morning and didn’t even charge me anything extra! I was absolutely astonished but so happy about it. It was extremely stressful, but it did give me an extra day in the city and allowed me to go home on the same flight as one of my closest study abroad friends from Edinburgh. All in all, I’m actually glad that it happened.

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I got to spend time with my friend Gianna on that extra day in the city, and because we were on the same flight home, we even got to hang out briefly on the American side of the Atlantic. I was glad to have some surprise extra time with such a great friend. 🙂

And on that note, I’ll close this whirlwind of a post. Stay tuned for one last reflection on my time abroad. Till next time!


Tori in Spain: The Dream that was Morocco

December 29, 2016

Last January, Sara sat in my room looking up all the beautiful places in the world she wanted to visit while abroad the next semester. I still had not decided whether I wanted to stay or go, but she was all set. One of the places she showed me was a place called Chefchaouen in Morocco, better known as the blue city. When I finally committed to studying abroad and started planning out where I wanted to go throughout the semester, Morocco topped my list. I think I was attracted to it simply because it was different, and that excited me. I was incredibly curious about what it would be like, but (I am embarrassed to admit) definitely had some preconcieved notions about what a Muslim, African country would entail.

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It was nothing like I expected. Every Moroccan I met was incredibly proud of their country and their culture. They were friendly and did not try to take advantage of tourists, but rather, were so excited to share their love for their country. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. Every day of our trip someone gave us something for free, whether it be a pomegranate, an almond honey dessert, or some amazing pastries. Everyone warned me not to go to Morocco without a professional tour group, because it is “dangerous, chaotic, and everyone tries to take advantage of tourists.” Comments like these fueled a little bit of pre-trip anxiety, but when I arrived my anxiety dissipated due to the amazing people I met.

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Our taxi driver from the airport was the first Moroccan we met, and he was phenomenal. He told us that after he meets people, he immediately considers them friends and will do anything in order to help them. He added us on Facebook and told us to come to him if we needed anything during our time in his country. As we roadtripped through the Moroccan countryside, we sang Heroes at the top of our lungs together and had a great time jamming to music while soaking in the beauty of our surroundings.

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Sunset our first night in Morocco from the roof of our hostel!

We spent our first night in Chefchaouen, a little blue city nestled in the mountains in North Morocco. We watched the sunset over blue roofs and gorgeous peaks from the terrace on top of our hostel, and were in awe of the beauty of God´s creation and the tranquility of the town we had the privilege of exploring. We went to an amazing restaurant for dinner and had an amazing meal of tagines (shrimp, lamb, goat, and kebab), goat cheese platters, traditional moroccan bread, and spicy roasted eggplant, tomatoes and peppers. Our waiter was awesome and so funny… when it came time for dessert he took our menus and asked if we trusted him. We said yes, and he brought us the best yogurt dessert I have ever had in my life. It was fresh yogurt with berries and honey and lots of other stuff I couldn’t identify, and it was amazing. Our three course feast cost the equivalent of 5 euros each, which made that yogurt sundae taste even yummier. We left and resolved to return for lunch the next day.

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Fresh goat cheese, bread, eggplant, and spicy tomatoes for appetizers!

We spent our sunshiney Saturday morning on the terrace of our hostel, and then wandered the many tiny, meandering streets of the Medina. We hiked up to an old Spanish mosque that overlooked the city, and met some goats and other farm animals along the way. I naturally thanked them for providing me which such good cheese the night before. On our way up, a guy was washing and cutting fresh cactus fruit, so I got to try some! It was super sweet and refreshing.

The views from the Mosque were incredible. As I looked over the mountains and little blue town, I was hit by the truth that I was standing in another country that, although different than my own, was still created by God and for Him. My friend Michaela and I sang “Holy spirit you are welcome here” from the top of the mountain, and it was a beautiful moment in which I was certain that God was alive and moving in Morocco, as well as everywhere else in this big, beautiful world.

That evening we returned to Tangier and met some awesome people in our hostel who were full time students in Morocco. They showed us around and came out to dinner with us. Abdul is Muslim, and prayed for our meal before we ate soup, chicken pastries, and traditional cous cous. It was a really cool moment. On the way home we came across an outdoor concert of band from Cameroon. It was one of the most joyous musical groups I had ever seen, and working up the courage to sing and whirl around with Sara to their fun music will forever be one of my favorite memories. The band sang of hakuna matata and celebrated the beauty life by dancing and wiggling with abandon. It was a precious moment.

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The only thing that was strangely absent from this memory, were Moroccan women celebrating life along with us. There were very few women in the crowd, or even on the streets in Tanger. This made me a little sad, because from an outsiders perspective, it seems as if Morocco is still an extremely patriarchal country. However, I was grateful to learn that the origins of women wearing headscarfs come from a verse in the Quran that suggests women should be praised for their morality and intelligence rather than their beauty. There is a lot of value in that.

The next day, half of our group headed out, while Eker, Emily, Sara, and I stayed. We decided to head to a little beach town called Asilah about 45 minutes outside of Tanger for the day. It was an enchanting day consisting of lots of bartering, yummy food, and great company. We hoped to finish it off, by watching the sunset over the Atlantic. We saw sun sinking below the buildings while we were in the center of the city and ran to the beach quickly enough to catch the vibrant, firey globe ducking under the horizon, leaving the sky strewn in pink and purple. It felt like a dream as I twirled around, mesmerized by the reflection of the sky in the water.

My family was at the beach in South Carolina the same weekend, so it was crazy to think that we were playing in the same ocean on different sides of the world. The second we were able to tear ourselves away from the sunset, we turned around to be greeted by the largest moon in 70 years.

The next day our taxi driver picked us up to go to the airport, but on the way he look us to his favorite pastry shop in the city and bought us traditional Moroccan wedding cookies. He told us of his love for his wife and kids, that his family was everything to him, and I saw 2 girls in headscarfs skipping and dancing alongside the road. I couldn’t imagine a better ending to a better trip. Marruecos, te amo. Gracias por todo.

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The whole crew!


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