5 Months Can Change Your Life. (Laura Riley)

I’m not entirely sure where to start as I attempt to reflect on the last 5 months that I spent abroad. The experience opened my eyes, built me, and changed me. It was easier than I expected, but at the same time full of surprises. And while I did go into it with low expectations (i.e. crying every day), my time abroad surpassed every expectation I had.

I seriously did assume that I would cry every day, but crying only happened once due to homesickness. The night of my sister’s Senior Thesis Fashion Show. I would have done just about anything to be back for it. It’s moments like those…being able to see the culmination of her immense passion, dedication, and effort. That’s a one-time thing. That’s what’s hard to miss.

Other than that night, the 154 days I spent in Europe were pretty happy. On January 14th (two weeks in), I blogged, “People said I wouldn’t know what to do with my time and I’m beginning to know what they meant. I’m definitely not complaining about this awesome ‘break’, but it will take some adjusting.” Well let’s just say, I adjusted. I figured out what to do with my time.

Compared to our lifestyle in America: where students work multiple jobs while going to school; where parents work 40 hours a week and come home with just enough time to make dinner, put their kids to bed, and wake up again; my 5 months studying abroad could be considered lazy, but there’s more to it. Studying abroad in Ireland cultivated simplicity. An appreciative pace. Time to build relationships. The ability to understand. Accept. Adapt. And reflect.

I’ve been back in the states for a little over two weeks and I already have realized how crazy life is. I love the quality of life here, the drive to succeed, the competition…but it is a stark contrast to the life I was living. Personally, I’m only working 22 hours a week, so my life’s not too crazy yet…but I see the craziness. I see the mark-way above our heads-noting what’s good enough. I’m not saying that life moves at a slow-pace for every European…not at all, it’s crazy similar to the states. But specifically, as a study abroad student in Ireland, I had the rare opportunity to sit back for 5 months and live a simple and appreciative life. And that’s one thing I will always hold onto.

I grew closer to the people I met there (who I knew for a total of 5 months), than to people I have known my whole life. Because we had time. Time to genuinely spend with each other. Time to not care about anything other than each other. And while I realize that is specific to my particular circumstances, I still believe anyone can create that for themselves. The length of time you know someone truly makes no difference. I realize that statement is unacceptably similar to a cliché friendship quote, but I mean it. I know more about the people I met studying abroad than I really should. :) But that’s what’s awesome. After studying abroad, I feel ridiculously lucky that I’m able to consider 8 new and wonderful people some of my closest friends. And I miss them dearly. I miss being in an environment where everyone is eager to meet everyone else. It’s sort of like being a freshman in college, except you’ve already done that whole situation once before. So it’s easier and more fun (and you don’t have to participate in any awkwardly embarrassing ice-breakers.) And you learn how important it is to not base your perception of someone on your first impression. But also how little it matters if you don’t seem to get along with someone. Find people who make you so happy you pee your pants laughing every time you’re with them…almost.

When you have time, and when you’re lucky enough to be in a a different country, you’re appreciation goes through the roof. And so does your attentiveness. When you’re abroad, everything is novel…so you pay attention to it. But when you’re home, everything starts to become normal. And that’s when you start missing things. But I’m not sure you can ever pay attention too well…especially in a world where peoples’ smart phones distract them somewhere between 35 and 150 times a day. And while paying attention to the people around you is of primary importance, that also includes everything else. When I was traveling around Europe in April, I paid attention to everything. To the accents of people, to the colors of the metros, to the font on the tickets, to the advertisements, to the difference in food, to the difference in culture, and on and on. I noticed more about countries I was in for 3 days than I’ve noticed about the city I attend college in. Realizing that, I’m really happy I appreciated my time abroad as much as I did, but at the same time, now I’m striving to be just as (if not more) appreciative and attentive of the places I see every day. Because they’re my home.

Studying abroad also really highlighted for me how important it is to develop a true understanding. Whether that be a true understanding of where you are living, who your friends are, how certain decisions impact others, what you dislike, like, who you aspire to be…the idea applies to everything. I guess it comes down to the fact that you can never know enough. You can never ask enough questions. You can never explore enough. But when you finally reach that point of…I truly honestly understand who you are, what I need to do improve on, how I can fix the problem…you can get somewhere and solve something. And be happy. Studying abroad is a lot of direct and indirect learning about yourself. You develop a truer understanding of who you are and what makes you happy. For me, I learned how much I love to write. How much I hate pans that are “washed”, but are still greasy. How much I love working at a college. How much I hate beer and wine. And how much I need to improve on complimenting the people around me.

I also learned how much happier you can be if you accept things for what they are. This is a fine line. If I can improve something that I realize needs improving, I don’t accept it for what it is. But if I know that it is what it is, and it cannot be changed, accepting it and moving on happily is the only option. When we were traveling in April, we got off at the wrong train station. We were not informed of the necessary transfer and ended up having to buy an additional ticket. At this point there was absolutely nothing else we could do (other than walk to the next city) so we bought a second ticket. It was an expense we hadn’t planned for, but it was one of those things that we just had to accept, move on, and not let ruin our day. As little as that seems, it applied, and applies, to everything. I realized just how happy I can be if I accept things that are out of my control…after I do everything that is in my control to fix it or make it better. Another nearly cliché quote. Apologies.

And lastly, reflection. My blog has made me reflect on just about everything. I approach situations differently…with a more attentive self. I have developed my listening ears and my goldfish memory to assist in blogging. And it has given me the opportunity to reflect on the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met, the food I’ve tried, the transport I’ve taken, the moments I’ve loved, and who I am. Crazy how doing something you love can really get you thinking, observing, and reflecting.

And it’s crazy how much 5 months can change your life. Impact who you are. And influence who you become.

Laura Riley studied abroad at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland.

Posted in Cultural Adjustment & Culture Shock, Cultural Identity, Cultural Norms, Traditions, & Lifestyles, Personal Growth, SNC Study Abroad | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

What up homework?! Nice of you to show up. (Laura Riley, originally posted on March 13, 2013)

So let me rewind a bit and take back all I said about not having homework. I guess it’s true that I haven’t really had “typical” homework (like what I’m use to at SNC), but I definitely have work. That needs to be done. That I’m procrastinating. But I’m only procrastinating in terms of my own deadlines. A lot of my papers are not actually due until the end of April, but seeing as I will be on a backpacking trip April 8th-May 4th, everything has to be done pretty soon!

Let me just give you an update on each of my classes…so you know that I truly do attend class. And in case you think I’m trying to fit in with the Irish (by simply not going to class), you’ll be happy to know that I have only skipped two classes. One to go to Dublin and the other to write a paper for a different class (that is not due until April 30th)…and because it was down-pouring. Yay! It was relatively easy for me to write the paper though, because in order to justify skipping I had to be super productive.

I’ll start with “MG2201: International Management and Marketing Practise with a Special Focus on the EU“. Even though I get pretty winded when I say the title of the class, I like it. It’s basically a general overview of marketing and management. We’ve had a different lecturer almost every week, so that has been interesting! Two weeks ago we had a lecturer who talked a lot about the culture of India in relation to the business environment. Crazy interesting! He has visited India multiple times and showed us a video that he took one time of him visiting a one-room house essentially. And while we would perceive it to be near 3rd-world living conditions, they had a Whirlpool washing machine and a flat screen tv among their non air-conditioned, cement-floored house. Really intriguing.

Then this week Monday I was laying in my bed, my alarm had already gone off approximately 3 times…needless to say I really liked the snooze button. And I got a text saying, “Meet you downstairs in 15?” So I figured I should probably get up and get ready for class. We got to class 2 minutes early, which is like 15 minutes early in the Irish world and we were literally the only 2 in the room. I was really hoping I didn’t get out of bed just to walk back home, but then people started filtering in. After about 10 minutes, someone came in and told us our lecturer had called in sick and they were figuring something else out. They told us to go get coffee etc., rounded up a replacement lecturer, and we started class around 9:40. That’s the casualness of Ireland for ye! But it was a great lecture nonetheless.

Other than lectures and our two field trips, we have a Learning Log (1500-2000 word paper) due, a Marketing Project, and an exam the last week of March. The marketing project is cruising along quite smoothly and I love my group. The Learning Log, that’s another story. And the study has not yet commenced for the exam…but it will soon enough!
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This was our Field trip to Jameson where my professor said to us (the last people to get our complimentary drinks), “If you guys could knock those back real quick, we’re kind of short on time.” Yeah, not a problem. When in Ireland.

Food Choice Analysis. This is my marketing class and it’s my favorite class for sure. It’s the most organized and the most consistent. This is the only class that I have a PowerPoint in every week and the structure of it is the most similar to what I am use to back home. My professor is a bit sarcastic…and who doesn’t appreciate a good sense of sarcasm?? The information is incredibly interesting and I’m learning a ton. I literally don’t have any homework or assignments in this one, just an exam on May 24th. But it’s getting me very interested in not only the marketing of food, but the marketing of Gluten-Free foods, foods for the elderly, and cosmetic foods. And the overall ideas of innovation and market-orientation.

Intro to Music in Modern Ireland. This one has been different than I expected. It’s more of a discussion group than a class. Our classes usually consist of discussing live music we have seen in Ireland, what we think of Irish music, or sometimes we watch a film and discuss it briefly. A few weeks ago we got to class and she handed out white printer paper and we each got a marker. Our prompt was to draw our culture…it didn’t even have to be music related. So we did that and then went around and presented it to the class. Not what I expected to be doing for the week, but I wasn’t complaining! Then today we showed up to class and she sprung it on us that it was our last class. Ever. Apparently music courses are only 10 weeks long because the last two weeks are reserved for instrumental/vocal performance exams. Good to know! But all in all, I have learned a lot about the musical culture of Ireland and have been informed of the many musical opportunities available in Cork and on campus. I already turned in one essay for this class and just have one left. No exam though!

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Here’s my culture in a brown & white sketch!

People, Place, Politics, Ireland. This one is definitely tricky. It was based much less on People, Places, and Politics than I expected and more based on Religion and History. Which is a toughie! History has never been my strong suit, so it’s a bit challenging. Also, our professor specializes in knowing the history of South Tipperary (a location in Ireland), so a lot of what we learn is focused on that area. His name is David J. Butler. I decided to sit down and begin reading the chapters and when I came across the words “Butler Dynasty” all the light bulbs switched on. I still haven’t gotten past the shock stage. He also is an avid writer and has written articles and a book, so all of what we read is his work. The reading workload is quite heavy to say the least and a bit tricky to catch on to. History is one of those things that you need a lot of background information to completely understand, but I’m catching on slowly! We have a multiple choice quiz/test the last week of March and  paper due at the end of April.

The best part of this class has been the two walking field trips around Cork City! I have been able to see hidden little gems that I never would have seen had I not taken this class. A fort in the middle of the city and a Huguenot Burial Ground in the city centre to mention a couple! We have to write 4-5 page papers on each of our field trips, so that’s convenient. The field trips have also given me a better feel for the city…just having the opportunity to be toured around and told not only the building and street names, but their significance as well.
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The picture on the left was taken is inside Cork County Courthouse and the picture on the right is a model of Cork City in a building that we have walked by nearly every day and have always wondered what it was. Now we know. And it’s pretty awesome.

Aspects of Irish Folklore. This is another one of my favorites. And I’m lucky enough to have it two times a week. I have found the fairy tales the most interesting by far. Some of the fairy legends are literally the most disturbing things I have read. They are actually scary. I was reading some of the tales before bed…good idea I know. I debated whether they’d give me nightmares or not, but seriously. They aren’t fairies like we think of back home. They are not the Tinkerbells, but are rather spirits. They aren’t ghosts either. They use to be humans, but they have been swept from our world to the “other world”. Apparently a lot of people don’t “believe” in them, but there’s kind of this general consensus, at least for the older generation, that, “I don’t believe in fairies, but they’re there alright.”

We had a one of the best (if not the best) Irish authors and storytellers come into our class and tell us a few stories. Check him out for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpXnIs57678.

For this class we have an essay to complete and exam on May 15th. I started preparing to write my essay last night, so I’m getting there!

Tin Whistle. Last, but not least, tin whistle. Tin whistle is definitely tricky. It’s tricky for me because while I can pick up music quickly by reading it, it’s a whole other story when it comes to learning by ear. And Irish music is based on oral tradition. So the format of the class is for our teacher to play a portion of the song and have us imitate her. Sometimes she will say the notes after she plays them, which then allows me to picture them on the staff and play it more easily, but often we just watch and learn. Our class is made up of 7 students, so there’s no hiding either. She goes around the table and has each of us play it back to her. After she teaches us the song, or 1/2 of the song if it’s a long one, she hands out copies of the music that she has written down by hand.

It is definitely a new challenge, but I can appreciate it knowing that it is the tradition of Ireland to learn orally. Plus, it’s always satisfying when it’s my turn to repeat what she just played (and even though I feel as though I have absolutely no idea what she just played) I play it back decently. There’s also those times where I say, “How does it start again?”, but all in all, I’m definitely thankful for the opportunity to learn tin whistle in Ireland. I mean, you can’t do that every day. For this class we have to choose two songs to memorize and play during the last week of March. It’s like solo and ensemble all over again.

And that’s that. Believe it or not, I only have 2 and 1/2 weeks of class left! That’s insane. And then my friend Katie from home is coming to visit March 30th-April 5th!! And then we are leaving for our 27-day backpacking trip on April 8th! The next month and a half will be crazy, but absolutely wonderful at the same time.

Cheers. To a productive Wednesday and Thursday.

Laura Riley was studying at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland.

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50 Days Later (Meredith Moore)

Finally, Salama from Madagascar!

I apologize for the extreme delay in beginning this blog. It has permanently resided on my to-do list since my arrival but have not yet found the time or internet speed to actually begin!

Bear with me while I attempt at summing up the last 50 days:

Our plane arrived to the Antananarivo airport on January 31 at approximately 1.30 am. There were three of us that came over on this plane together, which was a huge relief! Going through customs, there was hardly a sense of organization–such a change from the strict system that we’re used to. Much like we’ve seen in about every other town, the idea of gathering in an orderly line does not exist; you go through once you realize you must push your way. Once we successfully made it through, we were greeted by the SIT director from the Tana program. It was pouring rain and obviously pitch black outside so everything seemed to happen quite quickly after that. The three of us were whisked away in a van and after about 30 minutes, made it to the hotel where we would be staying that first night. My first impressions: stray dogs were everywhere, there are no street lights, and it was alarming to see crowds of people sleeping in rows under tunnels.

We spent our first couple of days in Tana, exploring this busy city with people rushing by everywhere on foot, taxi, bike, and car. Don’t step in front of anything moving–it won’t stop. Everything was such a change that it was hard to take it all in so suddenly! Plus, the heat and humidity at the beginning of February did not agree well with my skin, and the inevitable sunburn happened right away… But, aloe is not difficult to come by here and has been a MIRACLE in saving my skin. Plus, for me, it’s incredibly comforting to know its natural healing effects.

Well, a 50 minute plane ride later from Tana to Fort Dauphin, our next stop was Manantantaley, a village on the outskirt of the city. First, the whole sense of security at the airport was mind-boggling… I forgot I had a full water bottle in my backpack and was all nervous that I would get stopped by security. False! They couldn’t care less. Apparently there are very little regulations for what you can take on the plane with you. While one girl openly walked through drinking her water, half of the students actually beeped going through the metal detectors too!

Anyway, in Manantantaley, for the first time, we interacted with villagers, most of whom only speak Malagasy. It was an experience staying in this village: we learned how to squat to go to the bathroom while avoiding spiders, cockroaches, and lose floorboards, how to hand-wash clothes, count to 1,000,000 in Malagasy (of course forgotten by now), and how to effectively tie a mosquito net. We went on several beautiful hikes as well and were caught in a cyclone, but embraced this moment as a time to shower. First time we were that clean since our arrival! After a couple of days, it was time to make the treck to Fort Dauphin (pop. ~45,000), where we were based for the first month, and had to say goodbye just four days ago.

I LOVE my host family in Fort Dauphin. They were so welcoming and patient the entire time, and took care of me like their own children. Two of their children work in Tana, and the other two (Thérese-19 and Sarah-13) live with their grandfather. Their house though is only about a 5 minute walk away so the girls came over about once a week and during the weekend, I would go over there for a couple of hours as well.

Every night Papa Yvon and I would study together: me in Malagasy and him in English. We helped each other learn a few vocabulary words every evening and by the end of the month, we each now have a mini dictionary! Our home was very modest, a living room (also my room), a kitchen, and my host parents’ room. We didn’t have a refrigerator or indoor plumbing, but did have a TV with a single news channel that we watched every night- the first 30 minutes in Malagasy and the same program afterward in French. We didn’t have too much of a cockroach or lizard problem compared to others, but needless to stay, when I did have the pleasure of witnessing one by my bed for example, my heart would stop for a brief second. Hearing “tsssss” is not very comforting when you’re trying to sleep. The mosquito nets are clearly designed for more than just mosquitoes…

The Malagasy people also eat insane amounts of rice–always at lunch and dinner and sometimes even breakfast. We literally eat platefuls…I try to say I’ve had plenty but then I get asked a series of questions along the lines of: “What? Meredith? You don’t like my cooking?” or “Oh, you don’t like white rice? I’ll cook red rice instead!” Not that the rice is bad, there are just copious amounts. Sometimes little stones don’t get sorted out, so when you are all excited to have another spoonful, BAM! Stone! *tooth crack*

Maman Fanja taught me how to carry a bucket on my head, which is so difficult but I finally succeeded in the end, even though I walked at a snails pace. We went to collect water together and the women would always laugh at this vazaha trying something that is so simple for them. Especially wearing the lamba huany like a good Malagasy woman, I think I often get mistaken for being a native.

I’ve laughed at myself here just as much as others laugh at me; the whole experience would be much more difficult trying to be serious or perfect all of the time.

I really did get quite lucky with my host family, though. To be honest, it was challenging to adjust to the simple lifestyle (waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom in a bucket in the kitchen for instance) but in the end, I have absolutely no complaints. Before we leave Madagascar, we’ll have another dance and opportunity to see them one last time. I am shocked at how close I became with them though in just a little over a month, and how welcoming and non-judgemental they were the entire  time.

Vazaha is the word for “foreigner” in Malagasy–we hear this word constantly, especially by children who purposefully run up to us just to shout “bonjour vazaha”. The children in my neighborhood chanted it everyday, which was quite intimidating at first. They would be playing soccer and would all stop playing just to barricade me and shout to the obvious foreigner! I would awkwardly stand there, completely clueless as how to handle the situation. By the end of my stay though, I realized that smiling and returning a gentle “Salama” (Hello) really does the trick. Now among the group, we are all so accustomed to the word that it has become a joke and we start calling each other sometimes too. (Oh wow, look at that vazaha over there…awkward)

To save you all from further boredom, I’ll try to quickly get to where we are presently. Throughout our stay at Fort Dauphin, we went on several camping excursions studying botany and lemur ecology. Important announcement: King Julien is REAL, and even better in real life! So cuddly and energetic! Clearly, he does like to move it, move it. Seeing the lemurs, I felt like I was in the movie “Madagascar,” which I have found is actually strangely accurate to the real thing in some cases! If you thought I loved the movie before, my love has grown into a true PASSION.

We also spent a week in Faux Cap, a rural village that took about 11 hours to drive to via taxi brouss. This was quite the experience in a rickety bus on unpaved, pothole-filled roads but somehow we survived! (It was questionable sometimes, believe me.) There were two American students to every village and one or two Malagasy students as well to help with translating and to experience a different culture as well. Cameron, one of my best friends here, and I were placed in the same village, so that was nice to experience together. I don’t think I could have done it alone, to be quite honest. Life is so incredibly different in the rural environment. Even more rice, lots of intense zébu dancing (hours), and small huts to fit an entire family. It was also interesting to observe the differing gender roles: for instance, women always cooked and served the food to her husband and us as the guests, but was never able to eat altogether, rather, she ate outside with the kids. One of the villagers looked to be about 15 and had her own baby (quite common in villages) which she gave to me quite often to hold. One time, she looked at me, pointed to my chest, whipped out her own breast (not an uncommon sight, women here are very open with breastfeeding), and apparently told me to do the same in Malagasy. Um, no, there is no milk inside. “Tsy ronono” But, I still got to hold the precious baby, who would be sleeping, then notice a white person holding it, and gaze wide-eyed up at me, causing a hoot of laughter from the surrounding audience. Being in the village was certainly an eye-opening experience! Nights in Faux Cap were spectacular though–the Milky Way and the stars were breathtaking. I could have laid under the stars for hours…if I didn’t already have enough flea bites. Itchy!

We are now in Tulear and have started our marine studies. Tulear is a much bigger city than Fort Dauphin (pop. ~200,000) even though it looks just like a big village, but so far I really like it here. I finally decided on my research topic for the last four weeks of the program which is a tremendous stress relief. I’ll be studying mangroves with an NGO about 12 kilometers north of Tulear, so good thing I’m enjoying it here! I was planning on studying water contamination but in such a short amount of time, it is nearly impossible to collect sufficient data. Even though I was a bit disappointed at first, now I’m really looking forward to studying mangroves and can’t wait to meet with my advisor on Saturday to narrow down the details.

Meredith Moore is studying abroad in Madagascar on the Biodiversity & Natural Resource Management program with SIT Study Abroad.

Posted in Classroom Experiences, Cultural Adjustment & Culture Shock, Cultural Norms, Traditions, & Lifestyles, Educational Systems & Experiences, Environmental Sustainability, Festivals, Food, Host Family, Language, Personal Growth, Social Issues, Change, and Policy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Impressions After Week One (Alex Leitheiser)

Wow, I can’t believe I have already been living in Prague for an entire week!  Then again, when I look back, saying goodbye at the airport last Friday night seems like forever ago.

I have gone through some pretty strong culture shock over the course of my first week here.  I went through a couple days where I had the feeling that I could never adjust to living in a place so different from my home.  While I have been away from home since beginning college, I have never lived truly on my own before, as in having an apartment.  Trying to figure out all the little things needed for life in an apartment, an already foreign setting to me, has been made much more difficult by needing to do it in an entirely different culture.  I am slowly but surely beginning to look positively at all the differences I see around me when compared to my life at home.  I have found that this positive attitude is helping me feel like this can really be my home for the next 15 weeks.

Grocery shopping was also a challenge at first, with not knowing what types of foods to buy being amplified by the fact that everything at the grocery store is in Czech!  I am becoming much more confident with this as time goes on. When you can only buy what you can carry you find yourself at the supermarket almost every day.  The plus side of this is it encourages me to buy fresh produce and avoid buying any food that I won’t end up eating.

This semester as a whole will hopefully cut out some of the wasteful habits that come from living in the US.  My apartment does not have a dryer, so I will be sacrificing having comfortable soft towels in order to save energy.  So many people live without access to even a washing machine, so I figure a few months without a dryer won’t kill me.

Now that classes have started I am really starting to feel at home here.  I was able to switch out of my Friday class, so hopefully that will give me more opportunities to travel on the weekends.  I have been spoiled at SNC with being able to perfectly understand my professors during lecture, so I suppose my time has come to have an extremely fast speaking Italian econ professor with a very thick accent!  I guess its all part of studying in another country…

Today I had homework to do for my Prague Art and Architecture class, visit the Museum of the City of Prague, and the Vysehrad.  The museum was very interesting, covering the city’s history from the first hominids in the area 750,000 years ago up until the present day.  The gem of the museum is a 1:500 scale model of the city made during the 19th century.  It includes over 2000 buildings, each of them accurately constructed down to the window!  A woman who worked there approached me as I was looking at one of the exhibits, attempting to tell me something.  She started by speaking to me in Czech, and my confused look must have quickly signaled to her that I wasn’t from around here.  I must look German, because that was the next language she tried.  ”Nerozumim.  Anglicky prosim” (I don’t understand, English please)  She continued to speak to me in German nonetheless.

Vysehrad was a beautiful, quiet area to spend my Saturday afternoon.  Legendarily the first, but historically the second, castle of Prague, the fortress is built up overlooking the Vltava, offering incredible views of the city.  I spent a couple hours wandering around.  While the majority of the castle no longer stands to this day, a small Basilica remains.  I paid the 10 crowns to go inside and enjoy the heated pews.  There was even a painting of St. Norbert on one of the walls!  I am glad I visited the area on a cold, cloudy day, because it kept most of the tourists away, allowing me to enjoy the peace and quiet.

Alex Leitheiser is studying abroad at Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic.

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Wandering Thoughts (Alexis Redig)

Original post date: 11 December 2012

While walking home from dinner with a few of my friends tonight I was constantly reminded of the many things I am going to miss when I leave Florence on Saturday. I am so blessed to have had the opportunity to study in such a beautiful city, and have this play to call ‘home’ after weekends of traveling. While I was walking home in the chilly ‘winter’ weather I felt right at home in Wisconsin, in fact I felt so safe walking home it felt like I was walking around the St. Norbert campus, until I saw one of the fake David statues, instead of St. Norbert statue between Coffrin and Bemis.

Once I saw the twinkling lights and heard the river rushing as I was walking along it my mind that has been subconsciously freaking about finals stopped thinking about them, and just began to wander. Memories of my semester here all came rushing back, like the water that was rushing downstream alongside me. I thought back to my first weekend here, and trying to navigate my way around the city with Rachel and Alyssa. I remember the awkward small-talk conversations I had with students from my program, some whom I see on occasion and others whom I have never seen again. I think of our first apartment’s front door and how it took us about 15 minutes to figure out how to lock it, and then the next morning when our bathroom flooded and we were told we were moving completely across the city. Then I think back to the beautiful, yet torturous, summer weather we experienced until late-October, and how now on these chilly and rainy days I catch myself wishing it was warm again. Then each and every one of my trips came to mind and I am simply baffled to think that it was all real life, and I went to all these different places in less than 4 months, and I wonder why the time flew by…
As I was walking home I remembered just how simple and beautiful Florence is, and how I tend to take advantage of it when I am just walking out and about going on with my daily routine. Florence is stunning, and tonight when it was so peaceful I decided to take the long way home so I could look at all of the twinkling Christmas lights, walk across the vacant Ponte Vecchio, walk in front of Palazzo Vecchio, catch a glimpse of the Christmas tree by the Duomo, and just look at the architecture of this city that I have called home for almost the past 4 months-the place that I have to say goodbye to come early Saturday morning.

At this point in the week I cannot even begin to describe the feelings I have had this week, it has truly been a roller coaster with me (I apologize to anyone who has had to deal with me this week). As many of you know I am not going home on Saturday, like many of my friends are, but instead am taking about 11 days to travel Southern Italy with my friend Zac, ending with Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and then a 5:55am flight out of Rome on the 26th. So, as you can see I won’t be home with my family for the holidays, and it has been recently hitting me pretty hard. It has been especially hard this week, with the unlimited amount of statuses flooding facebook about how excited everyone is for Christmas break, and going home to spend time with family. All I can think about is how that will be me, but not for another 2 weeks…as opposed to the 4 days they have to wait. Don’t get me wrong I am excited to travel, and see Southern Italy for a little change of pace. And I am eternally grateful for the unconditional support of my loving family, but I miss them, and I cannot wait to see them. And part of me is wishing that I would be catching a plane home on Saturday back to Chicago, instead of taking the train down to Rome. But that’s not the case, and I have realized that this trip is only going to be as good as I make it, so I’m doing my best to go into it with an open mind and the thought that my family will be there waiting for me on the 26th and all will be well.

To end my post I thought I’d list some of the MANY things that I will miss about Florence and my time abroad…

-walking along the river
-living in a city surrounded by countrysides with villas and vineyards
-living with two of my really great friends, cooking with them, laughing with them, and sharing the responsibility of an apartment with them
-the architecture in this city
-walking in breathtaking churches, the next one more beautiful than the last
-walking throughout the city and happening upon a random historical building
-going to mass in the Cathedral, whether it be in English or Italian
-the Marian art that is on buildings all throughout the city
-walking around the city at night, feeling safe and comfortable
-gelato :)
-going to my favorite cafe and getting my usual for cheaper than the time before because the barista recognizes me, and appreciates my attempts at speaking italian
- the view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo, and the hike up to it
-the winding, narrow streets

Now you can see why it is going to be so hard to say goodbye to Florence on Saturday. Every city has its ups and downs, but I am so happy that I chose Florence to be the city I spend my four months away in!

Alexis Redig studied abroad at Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy.

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Service Learning (Danny Carpenter)

One of the major selling points for me, and the main counter to having to find my own housing, to go to NUI Galway was that there was an opportunity for me to participate in a Service Learning Course as one of my classes.  Thanks to the advice I received from the SNC student who studied in Galway last semester, I was able to get through the strenuous application process and was one of the 30, out of the over 80 who applied, to be selected for the class.

As part of this course, we attended a two hour lecture every Monday morning where we had lessons on everything from children’s brain development to sociological factors that are causing the adult illiteracy rate to be 25% in Ireland and initiatives in place to help to lower or eliminate this percentage.  Our class then participated in a smaller discussion group with our professor where we would further divulge on these topics.

The reason that all of us wanted to be part of this particular course was because part of our requirement was to volunteer for an hour at an afterschool homework club at a local school called Scoil Bhride.   Scoil Bhride was in a part of Galway that would have been more economically deprived and these students at this school would be at risk for possibly being part of that one in four adults who are not able to read or write.  Therefore, we were told that it was really important to help these students with their homework and to help them to feel confident with school so that they will go on to get their leaving certification after secondary school and possibly even then continue on to a university.

We were warned by our professor that the first couple of times that we go to Scoil Bhride, the children we work with would try to challenge our authority, but they would eventually discontinue this behavior when they became better accustomed to us.  This warning bode true for the first group from our class that volunteered at the school.  So it was with great apprehension I walked up to Scoil Bhride with some of my classmates for our first session.

When we arrived at the school, the teacher asked if I would follow her as she had a group of boys that she thought I would work well with.  When the boys introduced their names to me, I recognized them as some of the trouble makers that the girls in my class talked about earlier that day.  They, however, worked really hard on their homework and only would stop to ask me questions about America.  When they asked about our money, I pulled out a note that my uncle and aunt gave me the weekend before when they were in town for a wedding.  The boys thought it was really cool, and one of them pointed at Jefferson’s head and said, “He has funny hair.”  The only issue that I ran into with these boys was that my mental math skills were a little rusty and I would have to double check what I was telling them as they ask me for help.  Also, the way that I was taught would be different from what they are taught.  For example, when helping a student working on his Spellings homework and he completed a sentence I reminded him that he needed to end it with a period.  He blankly stared at me.  A period I said again.  More staring.  Luckily the teacher was also working at our table and she chimed in and said, “That is one of the other differences between us and the States, here we call it a full stop.”  The kids laughed at me, and made me repeat how we would say it back in the States.

It was interesting to see the differences between the American school system and the Irish.  The children would laugh when I would call their subjects Math and Spelling, not Maths and Spellings.  The children, only being about 5th graders, used pen to do all of their homework, including their Maths; something that I would never have been able to do even when I was in high school.  When I would be working with the students and they finished one subject and were moving on to the next, they would just flip to the back of the same book instead of having separate books for each subject.  The children would often have to swap around red pens and rulers to draw margins on their Maths homework as many of them would not have their own.

I never would have thought that my one hour a week would ever make an impact on someone’s live, but even by the second week, one of the boys I worked with waved and called me over to his table as soon as I walked into the door; all the other boys I worked with were suspended from homework club.  I asked him how his week was and he got bashful and said, “You remembered my name?”  I, being taken aback, replied, “Of course, you remembered mine.”  From every week after that we would wave me over to work with him, even if he already knew how to do his homework or if he had already finished it in class.

Our professor asked if we thought if it would be a good idea to reward the students for all their hard work with a Christmas party at the end of the semester.  After I convinced my professor and class that it does not make sense to have a Christmas party for young kids in the middle of November, we moved the party to the first exam week.  So as a class, we planned and prepared a party for all 60 of the kids we worked with.  It was a little chaotic to have all the kids, the 30 of us and the children’s teachers in the small gym of Scoil Bhride, but everyone had a great time participating in all the Christmas activities that we set up and going around taking pictures.  When the party was over, the Assistant Principal calmed all the children down and thanked us for all of our hard work for the semester and for the party; which she and the students agreed was the best party in Scoil Bhride’s history.  She then tricked the kids to helping clean up all the confetti on the ground by turning it into a game.

After our class finished returning the gym to the state that it was in before we took it over, the head of the homework club, Sister Margret, set up tea and biscuits for us in the staff lounge.  It was a great way to socialize with our class one last time.  When our professor thanked us for all of our hard work and said that he needed to go to grade our essays, our class ambushed him for a giant class picture.

It is sad that it is all over, but I am glad that I was able to have this opportunity and to be able to work with the amazingly intelligent students that I did.  I hope that other SNC students get this opportunity as it really was one of the reasons why I love being here in Galway.

Danny Carpenter is studying abroad at the National University of Ireland, Galway in Galway, Ireland.

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I Traveled the Land of Braveheart and Liquid Sunshine by Myself (Allyson Bills)

Dublin airport never looked so nice.  Made it there around 4:00am on Wednesday, November 14th with a lot of time to spare before my 6am flight to Scotland.  But getting to the airport was the real fun.  I walked to the bus station in Cork around midnight on Tuesday night and waited for the 12:30am bus to arrive.  I originally wanted to purchase my ticket at the bus station that night but as most European establishments, it is not open when I most need it to be.  I waited with another gentlemen from Germany going home after visiting his daughter in Cork.  The bus came and unfortunately I was unable to get on without a ticket purchased online.  For I walked across the bridge to another bus stop and waited for the 1am bus.  I knew that a round trip ticket cost €25.00.  I took out my wallet and counted exactly €25.00.  Thank goodness I come prepared for things to go wrong.  The Aircoach bus pulled up and I got on.  I asked for a return ticket and driver said “€28.00 please.”   €28.00!?!?!  What else could go wrong?  I had to run to an ATM to withdraw because I was €3.00 short.  Got some more money and came back to pay for my ticket.  Being the person I am, I started to panic that I wouldn’t make it to the airport on time since it usually takes 3 ½ hours to get the Dublin airport and it was already 1am but thankfully the airport is very quiet at 4am and I made it through security fairly quickly.

I looked up my flight waited in the correct gate area for the doors to open.  The worst part of my trip happened and I didn’t even leave Ireland.  Landing in Edinburgh at 7:30am, I was up before the sun.  I walked out of the airplane in complete darkness and all I could think was what am I going to do while the sun wakes up?  Thankfully the bus ride from the airport to the city took about 30 minutes and by the time I was in the city the sun was well shaded behind clouds with a thick mist blanketing Edinburgh city.

Edinburgh city reminded me of a fairy tale city.  Edinburgh Castle sits right up on a hill that over looks the entire city. Hill is an understatement; it is more like a cliff.  I could not believe that people walking around on the streets were not awing over how beautiful of a city they live in.  I wandered through the streets looking at the amazing architecture and the wonderful sounds of the cars driving on the cobblestone streets.

Since I was by myself, I could do anything I wanted.  I went to the castle first and had a tour through it.  I could not believe that it was still in operation and is still working has a military base for Scotland.  Everywhere I turned there were guards and men/women in uniform.  They looked a lot different to American uniforms because they have feathers on their hats that swish and sway in the wind.  When I was at the castle, apparently it was Prince Charles birthday so there was a special band playing in his honor.  It was interesting to be in Scotland but another country by very present in their military.

Walking around I noticed a sign for a free walking tour – why not?  I met with the group and made friends with some people from Switzerland, Germany, Australia and Slovenia.  That is one plus of going on a trip by yourself – you meet other people traveling just like you.  The walking tour told us about the history of the city and certain facts that are not well known.  After the tour, we went to a local pub to order some traditional Scottish food.  Haggis is a Scottish dish that is very much like an American hot dog because of what they put in it.  Haggis is the parts of the lamb that are not used.  They chop up the lamb’s lungs, liver, and heart put that into the lamb’s stomach and cook it.  It is served over mashed potatoes and turnips.  Surprisingly I ate this after knowing what was all in it.  It had the consistency of meat loaf and tasted very salty.  It was not the worst thing I have eaten but I will most likely not eat it again and if given the chance would probably not eat it again but now I can say that I have had it.

With my stomach filled I walked back to my hostel for a much needed nights sleep.  Walking back I had this sense of accomplishment for completing part of my trip successfully.  I already had the plans for the next few days and was prepared for everything and anything. Bring it on!

Inverness, a town with small streets, local musicians and very a tiny museum.  This is where I stayed for two days so that I could witness Loch Ness and perhaps get a glance at Nessie.  I got off the bus and breathed a sigh of relief.  I made it to my second destination with zero problems; I was feeling pretty good at 2pm in the afternoon after traveling since 9:30am.  I found my hostel immediately after I got off the bus because it was about 200 feet away from the bus station with a wonderfully sign all lit up.  In my room I met a girl from Australia who I spent my entire time in Inverness with and a man from France looking for work.   The girl from Australia (Lee) is also by herself traveling around.  She is also here looking for work but unfortunately she had her passport stolen in New York, USA and so she is waiting for her Visa before she can officially start looking.  We walked around the streets of Inverness, saw the castle and had a simple dinner just learning about each other and sharing stories about our travels.  It was nice having a companion, someone who I could talk to and trust a little bit.

Looking for Nessie was exhausting but definitely worth my energy.  Unfortunately she was not in the mood to make an appearance when I was looking but I learned a lot about her home in Loch Ness.  Apparently there is enough water in Loch Ness to cover every person on the earth over 3 times.  It is the second largest loch in Scotland but holds the most water – it is really deep, 755 feet at the deepest point.  When I looked at the water, it was just black and very rough.  It was windy when I saw it but usually it is calm and the water is extremely still.   The Loch Ness Expedition was all about how people were looking for the Loch Ness Monster and many pictures that surfaced that were false and unreal.  It was very interesting hearing about what some people did to make others believe that they saw the monster.  But there are over 1,000 eyewitness accounts for seeing the Loch Ness Monster.  Crazy how such a abstract idea could possibly be proven true because of so many people’s sightings. Not really sure if I believe but it was neat to pretend for a while.

Back in Inverness I made dinner, noodles and pesto, had a cup of tea and went out for some traditional Scottish music.  Lee and I found a pub where the music sounded fun.  We even asked the musicians to play a ceilidh and they did! Lee and I started to dance and a couple locals taught us the dance.  It was embarrassing but what can I say, I’m foreign, I am only in Scotland once and I will most likely not see these people ever again so again – why not?

Back on the bus again after 2 wonderful days in Inverness, now headed to Glasgow for the last leg of my journey.

Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, I took over 300 in Scotland.  But even 300,000 words are not enough to describe the beauty, peacefulness, curves and twists I have seen in on my bus ride from Inverness to Glasgow.  Out each side I saw mountains with snow-kissed tops and grass-covered valleys.  The way each mountain bended into the flow and turn of the rivers flowing down its side was so incredibly beautiful.  I looked out the windows the entire time and I am sure my mouth was opened in awe from the beginning.   After coming around a bend to relieve yet another scene that should be the background picture on my desktop, something about the rain changed.  It was not falling the way it was before.  It was more like drifting to the ground. It was snowing!  If only for a brief moment, I saw snow.  And I must admit that I got a little teary eyed.  A smile grew on my face and I was glad that I stepped onto the plane in Dublin, glad I struggled with the bus to get to the airport, thrilled that I made this plan to come to this magnificent place.

Glasgow was much like Edinburgh but on a smaller scale.  I went directly for the cathedral because I knew that the cemetery was where the best view of the city could be seen.  The cathedral was unbelievable.  I have been in many churches and cathedrals in my travels and I have not been in one quite like this.  The top was shaped like a boat hull symbolizing the travels that the church community must take together.  There was even a basement with many stain glass windows and tombs.  When I had seen my fair taste of everything that was worth seeing, I headed for the exit.  Walking down some of the stairs, I noticed a girl that looked very familiar.  I was about to approach her when I noticed someone else that I knew.  “Jane??” Low and behold it was a girl from UCC all the way in Glasgow!  I was so excited to see her and she was also going to be on my flight back to Dublin the next morning.

We walked about Glasgow for the rest of the evening and then headed to that airport.  We had to spend the night in the airport because transportation to the airport stops at 11pmSaturday night and does not start up until 9am on Sunday.  Well our flight was at 7am so of course we had to stay in the airport all night.  We stayed up playing card games, chatting, half sleeping and walking around the airport that was about the size of my high school gym.  But all in all I was happy to have people there to spend time with.
Back in Cork Sunday evening and feeling very proud of myself for achieving this challenge that before I came would never have thought I would even think about doing.

I traveled the land of Braveheart and liquid sunshine all by myself.

Allyson Bills is studying abroad at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland.

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A Post on Family: Can You Guess what my Minor would be if I had Room for it in my Schedule? (Tara Lovdahl)

(I have less than three weeks left and I want to be sure I’ve taken pictures of all my favorite things! Pictures for this blog are from my latest “touristy” walk around Florence).

Our study abroad program at St. Norbert really is managed by wonderful people and they do their best to have us prepared. When did I closely read helfpful forms like “what should you pack?” or ”What to expect culturally?” and past student evaluations? In August. During my layover in Germany– I had four hours to kill in an airport on my way to Italy. When should I have read them? In March. Guess what I didn’t pack… go ahead, take a guess. Nope, I packed a swim suit (and used it twice). I brought Q-tips (but that was Mom’s suggestion). I even brought sunscreen.

Pants.

I packed two pairs of athletic shorts for sleeping in or “working out”, a pair of kapris and shorts, two skirts, and… no pants. I know somewhere in my thought process while packing I decided: “Hey, Italy is close to Africa. I don’t need to bring a lot of warm clothing” and I sure didn’t. Thankfully Libby met me in Naples with two pairs of jeans and my winter coat (yes, Italy gets cold–it’s also close to Switzerland) and beforehand I made due with two pairs of pants I bought from H&M. Ugh. I can’t believe one of the tips for future students I’ll be writing in my evaluations is: “pack pants”.

This is going to sound like such a cop-out, but one of the reasons I didn’t read my orientation packet closely was that I wanted to be surprised when I got to Italy (by the country and culture– not my packing habits… which still didn’t surprise me. I’m neither proud nor surprised…okay, letting the pants thing go now). But while sitting in the Frankfurt airport I read multiple student accounts of how family-oriented the Italians are. I remember thinking, “How can you really tell that they are more family-oriented than the United States? That’s ridiculous.”

Only a handful of hours later, while waiting for the rest of our shuttle party in the Florence airport I already knew what the previous St. Norbert study abroad students were talking about. Among the crowd I saw a young father –he couldn’t have been much older than twenty-five– holding his baby boy of about a year. This father was hugging his baby the whole time–those sweet hugs where one twists the torso back-and-forth while embracing the other. He kept holding his son just to look at him and kiss his face. It was like there was no one else in the world. This hugging, gazing, kissing routine went on for at least twenty minutes. My party left the airport before the father got over the miracle that was his son. One of my favorite memories of Italy occurred before I had even left the airport. I don’t think I can accurately depict just how sweet that father was.

The feeling of family didn’t stop there. I see fathers walking their children to school every day (mothers too) hand-in-hand. I see so many families just laughing together. It’s very common to see a teenager linked arms with a grandmother. And it may just be my imagination, but there are a lot fewer incidents where a child is throwing a public hissy-fit. La famiglia è molto importante.

I’ve previously blogged about how Italian men emote so much more than American men who are generally more reserved and on a whole are culturally discouraged to show feelings–particularly young men. Taking this into account, Italian fathers appear especially enthusiastic about being a parent compared to many cultures.

When I’ve had the chance, I’ve asked Italian women how empowered they feel. The answer I’ve gotten is just “no”–they don’t feel empowered. Maybe “Flower Power” never really reached Italy. Overall women still feel pressured into their traditional gender roles–they still get their education, but then they are expected to live at home until they get married and have children. I’m not bashing the traditional ways by any means–if that’s what the individual wants. I’ve gathered that mothers have a very tough time balancing work and children and not many opportunities in the workforce to begin with. It seems things are slowly changing, but I was very surprised to find out how unliberated women feel. I figured fathers who were so eagerly involved would have less of a problem sharing family responsibilities than other cultures and thus Italain women would feel more free. But so much of gender discrepancies derive from tradition and Italy is a country deeply rooted in old customs. Things could still improve, but I know how good American women have it compared to women of many other cultures (especially the Middle-East). Despite feeling frustrated at times, overall I feel very lucky.

I was also thinking about this whole notion that Italy is “more” family-oriented than the United States and other countries. Even though I’ve witnessed so many examples of how much Italians fervently value family, every culture values family, and families of the same culture differ from one-another simply by virtue of individual personalities over their nationality. If I’m going to attempt pinning a clear distinction of why Italians seem to value family more: they are very straight-forward people who wear their hearts on their sleeves and are very affectionate. Italians on a whole are so warm–I’m really going to miss that.

Tara Lovdahl is studying abroad at Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy.

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What’s Ireland to Me? (Allyson Bills)

Original post date: September 16, 2012

Being here for almost a whole month I have a new appreciation for home life.  Starting out in my very first apartment, shopping for my own groceries, getting supplies that are usually on the shelf at home has been a change but adjustments were made and I am surviving.

Traveling around Ireland was my first goal for the August/September and I am succeeding very well. I have been to Cork, Kinsale, Dublin, and Inisheer.  The bus rides to these certain places have been a nightmare but finally arriving has been amazing.
I was present in Dublin from September 7th through the 9th.  We stayed in a hostel, which was a new experience and had some delicious Irish food.   We also saw the sights around Dublin like the “Dead Zoo” and the Archeology Museum along with the Guinness Storehouse.

I enjoyed some bangers and mash my first night in Dublin. Bangers and mash is mashed potatoes and Irish sausage with gravy. The sausage reminded me of Wisconsin brats but without the twinge of spice.  I also enjoyed some spiced lamb with cous cous the second night.  I was a little fearful of eating lamb but it was really good.  It was with curry, which is like rice but shaped like small balls.  Cous cous is very common in Indian style foods.

The “Dead Zoo” or the Natural History Museum was a museum filled with animals that were preserved in their original fur/hair.  People from Dublin call it the “Dead Zoo” because you basically go to look at dead animals. It was really cool though just to look at the different animals from about 100 years or even later like 1,000 years ago.  We also stopped in the Archeology Museum.  This museum is a lot like the Milwaukee museum.  The Guinness Storehouse was a tour of how Guinness beer is made.  It was really neat to see all the different ingredients that go into making what seems like a simple beverage.  The Storehouse was built in the shape of a pint glass and at the top there was a 360º view of Dublin.  I even got to pour my own glass of Guinness and got a certificate for it. The trip to Dublin was worth the 3 ½ hour bus ride.

Currently I am taking an Early Start class at the University College of Cork (UCC).  The class I am taking is called Irish Folklore and Ethnology.  This past weekend (September 13th– 15th) our class took a trip to Inisheer.  Inisheer is the smallest island of three islands off the shore by Galway.  We took a ferry ride from Galway to Inisheer that crossed the Atlantic Ocean.  The waves on Thursday night were extremely high and caused the ride to be less than pleasant.  A couple people on board got seasick and the rest of us got soaked from the waves and rain.  When we arrived on the island, we enjoyed a meal of either chicken or fish with chips (French fries).  We all got into our beds at the hostel that night and had a much needed rest from the long day of traveling.

Friday morning was sunny and windy, which helped to dry out our clothes.  We got the day to travel around the island and explore the whole area.  For those 9 hours that I was given, I walked the entire island if that gives you an idea of how small the island was.  We got to climb up into a castle/lookout post on the top of the island and see a lighthouse on the other side.  Beaches covered in rocks and cliffs surrounded the island.  Rock walls that kept random cows, horses and donkeys separated divided the entire island and made it look like a puzzle.  The rock walls were about 4 feet tall and looked like a strong wind could knock them over but even with a few shoves they held strong.

The whole time I was looking around I had to think that there is no way I could live on an island.  If one of us would have broken and ankle, we would have to wait for the next ferry which only came at 8am, noon and 6pm.  Don’t break anything after 6 or you are out of luck until morning.  Also grocery shopping, if you forget something you can’t just turn around and get it.  The island was really nice to visit for a few nights but leaving was a nice feeling as well.

We left Saturday morning at 8am on the ferry.  The ocean was calm and the sky was cloudy, which is no shock for Ireland but it was a better ride than the first one over.  We got back to Cork around 4pm that night and I continued to remember about the wonderful time I had on that small island.  It was amazing being so close to the Atlantic Ocean and seeing the waves and hearing the splash.

Ireland surely has many places that are unbelievable and I just added one wonderful memory to this awesome study abroad experience.

Allyson Bills is studying abroad at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland.

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Lucca Bike Tour – and Other Thoughts (Tara Lovdahl)

Pictures for this blog post: This past Friday my study abroad program hosted a free excursion to a city about 15 minutes away by bus called Lucca (population 85,000). We went on bike tour which made me feel like a little kid. The city was once entirely surrounded by military walls because aparently Florence was trying to conquer Lucca by cannon–didn’t expect that. Florence was also once surrounded by military walls to keep out invaders, that is why both cities are so compactly arranged–for so long they could only build within the walls. On Saturday I went with a friend to Fiesole, a city hanging on the mountains just outside of Florence. It is a small town and was captured by Florence in 1125. There were Roman ruins to see, but we weren’t prepared to pay for a museum entrance. Instead we hiked up the steep hills and found great views of Florence in the valley below as well as a couple of Romanesque churches to explore.

One of the study abroad coordinators brought her dog along to Lucca. I love dogs, but Italians make it obvious they LOOOOOOOOVE their dogs. Dogs are welcome in bars, trains, buses and pretty much anywhere. One day I was in the grocery store and someone tied their dog to the inside handle of the door. It was wagging its tail and occasionally barking and its presence seemed very commonplace for the locals. The cashier at the line I was standing in and the customer being waited on were chuckling and pointing to the dog. People let their dogs run and play in piazzas and parks and people are always happy to see the dogs just be dogs. I love it when a dog isn’t cooperating on a walk–standing in firmly in protest–and the Italians (often old women) calmly talk to the dog, urging in her mother tongue for the dog to budge. Anyways, I mentioned to one of the coordinators that I’ve noticed how Italians love dogs more than average. Americans love their dogs but Italians LOVE their dogs. She completely agreed. She said the people in her office send pictures of their dogs to each other at the end of emails and treat their dogs as if they were their children. She laughed as she went on to say that when they hear other people’s dogs are sick people basically mourn and wear black for days. I asked if they feel the same way about cats. She said of course it varies from person to person, but for her there is no other animal that gives back love quite like a dog. She told me she loves all animals though–she won’t even kill mosquitoes because it would make her “feel sorry”.

Another small thing I’ve noticed is that Italians whistle a lot and I now whistle more when I’m walking on the street. One time I was whistling and I turned the corner and there was a guy reading a newspaper who whistled back. That totally made my day. Speaking of making my day: a week or two ago an Italian-speaking woman asked me for directions. With my complexion and fashion sense (or lack thereof) I never expected to be asked for directions. Luckily I knew where to direct her. That was very exciting.

A few weeks ago I went to dinner with my roommate, Kait and two of her Italian friends (I should have taken a picture, but I had just met them… oh well. Hopefully I’ll see them again). I asked the girls some of the questions that have been eating away at my brain. I wanted to blog what I learned before I forgot.

One thing I was surprised by is the dominant presence of American pop culture in Italy. I never realized it was so global. Not only our pop culture is popular here, but the American flag decorates a lot of clothing and merchandise. In the United States, I don’t see a lot of people wearing the flag unless it’s July–but here I see Italians and other Europeans wearing shirts with the American flag on it, sunglasses, shoes, backpacks, etc. Sometimes it’s just the flag, but othertimes it’s distorted in a way that is hard to decipher. For example, I have seen a few shirts with skulls replacing the Stars next to the Stripes. Does this mean they think the United States is like death? Not exactly knowing what to expect, I asked Kait’s friends to tell me what the Italian attitude is towards the United States and they smiled brightly and said they love Americans. I explained how I had seen our flag displayed and how it confused me and they said Italians may gently tease the United States, but overall they have warm regards for the U.S.

Italians are more physical in general. One day a friend and I were looking for a place called Gusta Pizza because it has a very good reputation. All we could find was Gusta Panini and they didn’t have pizza on their street menu, so we went inside to ask someone. I asked the man behind the counter if they served pizza and he laughed and slapped my shoulder and then shook me saying: “Ah! That’s'a miye brother! Down’a de street’a!”

On Saturday we needed to buy a bus ticket back to Florence from Fiesole. It was 2pm and of course, not a lot was open at that time. We saw where our bus was sitting–the bus was wide open–the driver was no where to be found. Some American tourists were standing outside the vehicle curiously inspecting it as if it were a UFO, unsure what to do. My friend and I trotted over to a food stand to ask where we could buy a bus ticket and the man directed us to a Tabbachi shop across the street. With no indication when the bus driver would return, we booked it across the street and up the block to the shop. When I asked the woman for “biglietti del autobus” she leaned over the counter to point out the door: “Okaaaye, you go a’down de block’e…” and we were already out of breath from hiking through the hills and now running around for the bus, our faces just dropped. Then she smacked my shoulder and started laughing “Ahahahaha! I’m'a just’a keeding!” If I had a euro for every time an Italian slapped my shoulder while I’ve been here…

Tara Lovdahl is studying abroad at Florence University of the Arts in Florence, Italy.

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