Hello, all! I know I promised pics from a previous trip, but now I’m embarking on a new one! This week is Chuseok, a holiday in Korea that is similar in all terms and purposes to Thanksgiving in Canada. The holiday mostly constitutes going to grandparents’ or extended families’ houses and eating a lot. Well, because we don’t have family here in Korea, my dorm-buddy Kyle and I have decided to head down to the southern island of Namhae for a walking/backpacking excursion. Pics and and news when I return! Stay tuned!
You can’t start a book in chapter three, and it’s the same with this blog; to really start you have to start at the beginning.
So a bit of background to get us all acquainted:
U of T is a great school, we all know it and that’s why we chose it. But it can also be a very overwhelming place, because with a million choices it’s hard to hear about everything that is going on and it’s even harder to choose what it is you want to do. We’ve all know it.
Now, in my first year, I took a renaissance studies course in which the professor used a lot of his own travel pictures to illustrate the various cities, buildings and monuments he taught about in class. Every other sentence in his lectures started with “and if you go to siena this summer and take my course there you’ll of course see this…and this…”
Hmmm a course in siena for the summer…
I know, I thought exactly the same thing you are now thinking… ‘so..where exactly is siena?’
This is what I came to find out: it was to be a five week course in italy, taught by a ] U of T professor for a transferable1.0 university credits.
That was the official pitch. study in tuscany for 5 weeks during the summer, let italy be your textbook, and learn in a way you’ve never learnt before.
The truth is it was the best thing I ever did.
I know, I know. I just did it. I pulled the ‘that was the BEST thing I ever did oh my gosh’ line. It’s true, everyone always claims they know/did/saw/experienced the absolute best thing ever.
But let me tell you this: when you’re in venice, rushing off a gondola with your friends because the bells in san marco just rang three and you have to go meet up with your class for your tour of the cathedral, and that’s just a normal thursday afternoon, then yeah, it’s pretty fun.
And after a Summer Abroad you end up with a thousand stories like that.
I’d tell you all of them, but the truth is, the most important part you have to hear about is the start. Because the only part that is stopping you from doing it yourself is actually starting.
Let’s re-iterate that for emphasis: the only part that is stopping you is actually starting.
Everyone will tell you about the adventures and the stories and all of the funny jokes, but you need someone who will tell you what it’s like when you’re at the airport and you have to get on a plane all by yourself with strangers to go far away for weeks without even being sure you’ll have a good time.
So here we go, July 2009, at the airport:
Me- in tears, lining up for the check-in counter repeating over and over in my head ‘this is the worst idea…’
My brother- offering wise words of encouragement: “stop crying. everyone will think you’re a loser and you’re not going to make any friends.”
My mom- “you’re going to have a great time, this is a great thing you are doing”
My dad- “those bags are overweight. You’re going to have to take something out”
Yes, they were overweight. But they weren’t the only ones. Directly infront of me was a girl who was rifling through her suitcase trying to make it lighter while her mom watched on. (and she began chatting with another mom, “25 skirts! 25 skirts! She’s going there to study…what does she need 25 skirts for?”).
And maybe you’d think that once in italy the nerves would have subsided and it would all be done. No way. It was even worse, all I kept thinking was what am I doing here? I should be home!!!!
So yes, you know it will be fun, but you also know you haven’t done anything like this before and you know it scares you. Because it is scary. Of course it is. But you have NO idea all the magic that is waiting on the other side.
I went to italy to do a Summer Abroad and had an incredible time; so incredible that I went back to U of T wanting more. I took another leap and signed up to go abroad
for a semester in England and WHAT an experience that was!! and now, here I am abroad again and already having a BLAST!
So this is it. You are young, the world is literally at your fingertips, and you can do it. U of T has a whole centre devoted to helping you do it. Stop stopping yourself. GO. Because it will be the best thing you ever did.
It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been at Yonsei University in South Korea for one month, but at the same time, looking back at the things that have happened to me in this first month, it actually kind of feels like a long time. I had really meant to blog about all this earlier but it has proved to be quite an adjustment from my Toronto life to this new one here in South Korea.
For the most part it has been exciting and new, even though I have been to South Korea a few times before, which helped to dilute the culture shock to some degree. However, I’ve still had a number of exciting adventures and not so exciting misadventures. Let’s start with the tough times.
In this first month alone, I nearly ran out of money, lost an expensive pair of prescription glasses, which I need to function day-to-day, purchased a smartphone, lost it in taxi and then bought another, only to find that I can’t activate it without a “foreign registration card,” which I have yet to receive. The most mind-boggling thing about all this is that I have never, ever lost a cellphone before, and I have a very good track record with glasses as of late. It was quite annoying that fate decided to wait until I was out of my element to spring these misfortunes upon me. But I digress, and it’s these things that make you tougher and more adaptable, I feel, and so far on this exchange, the good has certainly outweighed the bad.
And now the good!
South Korea is an awesome place and I love it. The food and drink are cheap, the people are friendly and attractive, the transit is always on time, and Seoul is a beautiful city to behold. So far there has been no shortage of things to do. It’s a bustling, lively place with diverse neighbourhoods that are, for the most part, quite safe and clean, and I feel pretty darn comfortable here. I’m currently staying in a dorm (more on that later) and so far the people I’ve met have been totally cool! A few of my dorm neighbours and I went on an excursion a few weeks ago and it proved rather awesome.
One of the fantastic things about the Seoul Metro is that you can take it out of Seoul to the countryside and other interesting parts of the northern province, Gyeongi-do in South Korea. For example, a few weeks ago some folks from my dorm (two Americans, a Swede, and a German friend) went to the much smaller city of Cheuncheon, which is about two hours out of Seoul on the subway! I had to play tour guide as I was the only one who had previously been there.
I’ll tell you all about it in my next post, as I have a fair bit of studying to do right now. Check back for more, with pics!
My roommates have an orange light they turn on in the living room, not to be mistaken with the red lights that are common in Amsterdam, cause it looks totally different (not at all). As you can imagine, I try not to stand near the window during these times… I’ve spent the last week fixing my eyes so I am not Julie-pumpkin-face and getting myself out into the world. So here is the inside scoop on my recent (mis)adventures:
- How to dance like you saw a double rainbow
- A Culinary Tour: Stroopwaffles or as I like to call them, “shamecakes”
- AmsterDAMAGE: How the Netherlands broke my sense of direction
- Sun showers and self-reflection: follow me into metaphor-land
#1. How to dance like you saw a double rainbow:
Think of how amazing your friends are and the wide variety of circumstances that it took for you to find them. Now, imagine yourself in a new country for 4 months, how are you going to find good company? That’s the challenge. Even though I am a very friendly girl, making friends here has been more difficult that I expected because I don’t live in Amsterdam where my classes are and Utrecht-ians keep a bit to themselves. As a result, I’ve used couchsurfing (a site for travelers) to meet people in the area and ask them to show me their favourite cafe in town.
On a Saturday night I was invited by a Dutch local named Judith, a well referenced couchsurfer, to have dinner at her house and then to go to an alternative dance party. If you are wondering what an alternative dance party is, the only information I had to go on was, that people dance barefoot… and there are smoothies.
In the spirit of being abroad and saying ‘yes’ to new things, I agreed and showed up to her house, sunflowers in hand. She lives in a trailer on the yard of an anti-squatting plot. In other words, she lives on the edge of the edge of society. But she is great and her trailer looks like a little girl’s jewellery box— the tin trailer incasing panther print blankets and christmas lights. After a dinner of quinoa, sprouts and homemade hummus we biked over to the venue
Let me set the scene— we walk into this huge house where every floor is dedicated to a different kind of alternative atmosphere. For instance, we passed a room where people drew with crayons and laid down on beds of nails, a ‘re-assuring’ sign that whatever I was about to get into would be unexpected. So we get to the top floor and our ‘class’ before the dance party begins. First activity, pick a partner and dance with only your shoulders together. Second activity, pick a partner and dance with only your feet together. Third activity, pick a partner and dance with your middle fingers together! Interesting…ahem.
After this warm up, the most rigorous part of the ‘class’ begins. Here, 1/2 the class had to be a reed in the water while the other 1/2 of the class was the wind that pushes the reed. And I suppose what we should learn is how to be ‘free’ and move how you move and not how you think you are supposed to move. Amazing lesson, but if manifests in a very particular way. That is, the people who were most ‘free’ dance crazy… like really crazy… like they saw a double rainbow crazy. This was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t smiling the entire time. However, I did leave when people started getting their faces painted like cats and hula-hooping. That’s when I cashed in my chips and thought, “I’m good— I think that’s enough strange for me tonight.”
# 2: A Culinary Tour: Stroopwaffles or as I like to call them, “shamecakes”
Each blog post I hope to investigate a particular kind of Dutch food, this week is Stroopwaffles. These are cookies with multiple layers of waffles and syrup pressed together (delicious), however, they have the adverse affect of turning me into a raptor from Jurassic park. Rather than eating like a human, I devour not just one little stroopwaffle, but all of its friends. In fact, this post was supposed to have a picture spelling out the word “Stroopwaffles” with stroopwaffles, but after 2 failed attempts from simply eating the cookies, I gave up. But, I digress… Stroopwaffles are a good culinary places to start because they represent one of the largest sections in the grocery store.
Here are some quick facts about shamecakes, I mean stroopwaffles:
- How much do they cost? 1-5 euro depending on quality and quantity (shamefully afffordable)
- When do people eat them? All. The. Time. They are also an excellent ‘waiting for the train’ food.
- How much does quality matter? You can definitely taste the difference between a cheap stroopwaffle because they are more brittle, whereas ‘high quality’ break-your-teeth-with-sweetness is a soft experience where the caramel strands are endless.
- Extra tip: Eat them in a social situation as a way to induce self control
# 3: AmsterDAMAGE: How the Netherlands broke my sense of direction
Every place has small details that you know right then and there that you will miss. Like every day I see about 6 or 8 people who just bought flowers. Amazing. Buying flowers is kind of a special event in Toronto.
Here, even the most dreary cafes have fresh flowers on the table… these are small details I will miss. Or the fact that when you bike here, you don’t feel like you are going to die, again small details. What I will not miss however, is the city planning. In the Netherlands the city is built in relation to the canals, often creating concentric circles in the city plan. What I can’t get my head around is the fact that the street names will change 4 times in 100 meters. Everyone probably has a street named after them, it’s probably not even a special thing anymore.
There are some people who have amazing inner ears and brag about how great they are with directions and this is NOT me. Actually the only time I’ve been good at directions was in Italy where most of the city planning resembles a plate of spaghetti that fell on the floor—somehow that particular type of chaos spoke to me. Also, because of this concentric circle thing, the streets curve slightly. Tricky, right? So rather than going west, all of a sudden you find yourself going south. I think the french invaded the Netherlands, but they probably had to do it like 5 times because the streets kept curving them back to France.
# 4: Sun showers and self-reflection: follow me into metaphor-land
As can be expected, being abroad comes with its fair share of ups and downs. This is not just because you struggle with things like language differences or having to resist their sweet sweet cookies. Rather, it is because everything that defines you is temporarily taken away. Things like, where you live, your friends, what your apartment looks like— all the things that tell someone something about you, without you having to…
Yesterday I was walking back from class and it started to rain while the sun was shining. Not just for a split second, but for several minutes. It occurred to me that this, this is what I was feeling. It is both loss and liberation of one’s life and of one’s sense of self. What comes out of the experience is knowing what stays the same within you, despite everything else that has been shaken. And that is profound. How often is it that you can see your shadow holding an umbrella? Rare, right? Living abroad let’s you see that. You can witness yourself struggle, cope and blossom.
During this process, I can watch my own coping mechanisms, develop them and fine tune them. For instance, one day I was feeling a bit down because I was like, “The only place in Holland that is mine, I am allergic to…” and so I decided that I was going to bake something. Something that would make me feel like a successful and capable human and that I can share with others because so much of my experience here is solitary. So I baked a cake in the shape of a heart and BOOM, feeling of superhero-ness restored. It is such a simple thing, but you need small wins.
I arrived in Graz last Sunday and the first week has gone by unbelievably quickly. From moving in to my new apartment, meeting my roommates, making new friends, getting acquainted with a new city and university, and of course finding time for some quintessentially Austrian activities, it is no wonder that the first week of my exchange has flown by. I want to share some of my first impressions of Graz, the University of Graz, and Austria.
Graz is the second largest city in Austria and the capital of the province of Styria and it is absolutely beautiful. Since it is located in the southeastern most part of Austria, it is much warmer and sunnier than the rest of the country. It has been in the mid-20s and sunny since I arrived here. The historic city is well preserved, as Graz emerged relatively unscathed from the two World Wars. The city has a population of approximately 40,000 students, which gives Graz a certain buzz that other middle-sized cities lack. Here are some pictures of my new city:
My first week in Graz consisted mainly of orientation at the University of Graz, on everything from course selection, to the international student network, to registration for classes at the athletics facility. (NOTE: Students camp out OVERNIGHT to be first in line for registration for sport classes. That’s right, no online registration. Luckily for me, my roommate grabbed me a number, and I successfully registered for a Yoga class taught in German!). Overall, the adjustment to my new university has gone very smoothly, and this is in large part due to the wonderful organization of the Office for International Relations at Graz. They really go out of their way to ensure a smooth transition for international students, which can be especially tricky considering the language barrier that many, including myself, face. I am really looking forward to classes starting next Monday, and on getting more acquainted with my new school.
Finally, time to talk about some of the typically Austrian things I have encountered in my first week here! I was lucky enough to arrive in Graz on the last day of Aufsteiren, the largest festival of the year, which essentially celebrates all things Styrian. My mentor (the University of Graz has a wonderful system for international students, where you are paired up with an Austrian student who picks you up from the airport and helps you navigate the bureaucracy of both the city and the university) picked me up from the airport last Sunday dressed in traditional Austrian clothes. The entire city was full of Austrians dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. Aufsteiren basically involves traditional Austrian clothes, music, food, and of course drinking! I can’t imagine a better way to start off an exchange than the chance to experience one of the liveliest weekends of the year.
On Saturday, I had the chance to experience another typically Austrian activity: hiking up mountains! A bunch of international students and Austrian mentors organized a day of hiking at Bärenschützklamm, about 40 minutes outside of Graz. The hike was brutal (8 hours long!), but offered some spectacular views of the surrounding country. I will let the pictures speak for themselves…
I grew up in a home, in which we always had guests and my mom always told our family and friends to feel at home; mi casa es su casa. I always liked to have a home full of people and laughter echoing throughout the house. Therefore, when I decided to study abroad in Europe for 1 year, I told my friends not hesitate to visit me in Brussels. However before I could invite people in my home, I needed to find a flat. I believe this is one of the hardest things you have to do abroad.
The University of Brussels told me that exchange students could not live on res. for the academic year, but gave me a lot of websites that I could visit. Thus, in Toronto I looked at a lot of websites and tried to contact a lot of people. Also, I looked at a few Facebook groups and contacted my friends in Brussels in order to find something. I found it very difficult to find and contact people from Toronto not only because of the 6 hours time difference, but also because there was only a phone number and no email. Also, I could not make an appointment for the following week when I would arrive in Europe because the apartments would no longer be available.
The other problem I faced, was the kind of apartment I wanted to have. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have a studio or rent a room with other people, or even rent a room in somebody’s house. To make things a little bit easier, I decided to see anything I would get an appointment.
I arrived in Brussels pleased that I had a few appointments to see rooms. I printed a small map from google maps because I didn’t have a map from Brussels and thought with it I could navigate easily through the city. But, unfortunately for me and my orientation skills, I was completely and utterly unprepared. I got used to the horizontal and vertical street configuration in Canada, but in Brussels these don’t exist, the city is filled with small streets, roads and paths and there is very little organization. The sun burning, my heart sinking, my mind racing and being confused, I was lost (“Au secours!”). Thank goodness however, Brussels has very friendly habitants and has a lot of tourists, therefore I asked for direction and I was able to know approximately where I was and where to go.
Brussels flats are very different from Toronto’s, most of them don’t have a washing machine inside the apartment or even in the building. However, Brussels is filled with small shops with washing machines and dryers, called “wasserette”. Also, one of the small studios I saw, although quite livable, was very peculiar. It had two rooms, one room was the kitchen and the other was the bedroom. There was no separate room for the bathroom, therefore the shower was in the kitchen and the toilet was outside in the garden. Yes, you read it correctly outside.
After a few days of stress, a lot of worries and continuing to search the Internet, my friend messaged me on Facebook and offered me a room in her apartment because one of her roommates was leaving (phew, merci Facebook).
Now that I have a room, if you are near Brussels you are more than welcome to visit me,
I’ve always wanted to travel the world, see different countries and meet different people. Toronto has provided me that because it is so cosmopolitan and so culturally rich. However, as much as I love Toronto and its people, I felt like I needed to escape the busy city for a while in order to have an adventure and find myself by discovering my limits and my strengths. Therefore, I will tell you my student exchange program experience in Europe, more specifically in Brussels.
Before I even applied for a student exchange program, I did a lot of research on where I wanted to go, what I wanted to study and what a country would teach me. I’ve always liked Brussels because as a Belgian-Canadian, my mom used to go there for university and when I was very little I used to live there. However, after I chose Brussels for my host institution, I still felt that pain in my stomach, the one you usually have before a big exam or big piano concert, because I was very nervous. In spite of this, you might call it faith or serendipity, or even just coincidence I watched the French movie L’auberge espagnole (Link to the trailer L’auberge Espagnole) . (For all the not frenchies reading this blog, it means the Spanish youth hostel).
The movie is about Xavier, a young French student who decides to go on an exchange (or Erasmus like they say in Europe) in Spain in order to perfect his Spanish and get a great job in Paris. At the beginning, Xavier is a bit fearful in an unfamiliar city and starts looking nervously for a room in Barcelona. He finally finds a place with other students; a Spanish girl, a British girl, a German guy, an Italian guy, a Danish guy and also later a Belgian girl. The first time, Xavier meets this group, although a bit disorganized, messy and full of qui pro quo, he feels immediately that he belongs there. Consequently, he calls it L’auberge espagnole because according to his dictionary “une auberge espagnole” is a place where we find what we share (“on y trouve ce qu’on y apporte”). Barcelona is also the place he learns a lot about himself, and he explains that even the bad situations should not be considered negative, but rather funny stories that will be told over and over again in the future. After watching this movie, I really felt like it gave me courage not only not to be afraid of the unexpected in my exchange program, but also to embrace it and find myself.
Kisses from Brussels,
So this was my first actual sight seeing around Barcelona! This famous Barcelona park is located only about a 5 minute walk from my residence and has a long history behind it. It now a days famous for being the “Green Lung” of Barcelona with its incredible relaxing pathways, miniature lake with row boats for rental and the Barcelona Zoo. It also houses the Catalonian Parliament Building on the far north corner of the park. Small bit of history about the park! After the Spanish Succession, Felipe V of France razed the local neighbourhood of La Ribera to build a huge citadel (Ciutadella) in the centre of the city to keep watch over the rising Spanish against the French occupation. Then after the Spanish took over it was used as a political prison and then in 1869 it was given back to the spanish people before the Universal Exposition in 1888.
Now it used as a daily stroll for me to my university and also the location for my yoga classes!
Remember what it was like to make gingerbread houses over the holidays? Gingerbread cookies with white icing and lots of ornamental candy? Well, the buildings in the Netherlands makes it feel like living in a gingerbread town, which would be great, if it wasn’t making my mouth water all the time. I am spending the next semester living in the Netherlands, but I have to tell you, I’m not sure if I’m going to make it. I seem to be a magnet for a special kind of “high quality” awkwardness and (mis)adventures here. So over the next few months to emancipate myself from the awkwardness and to eschew them off of my cringe reel, I’m going to blog about them.
4 (mis)adventures in the Netherlands:
- # 1: Am I living with characters from a Wes Anderson movie?
- #2: How to ruin Dutch simply by speaking it.
- # 3: How to make a host a dinner part that no one will come to again.
- #4: I’m sure my eyes swelling shut will go away by itself. Probably.
# 1: Am I living with characters from a Wes Anderson movie?
You know when you meet someone with a ship (not even a boat), who has a PHD in electric engineering and a coif like vidal sassoon and they invite you to live with them, hypothetically speaking…whether or not you know it, you are signing up for an adventure. Well, in my case it was not hypothetic, but before we get to that part of the story, I should tell you, I decided to live in Utrecht rather than Amsterdam this semester. Don’t get me wrong, Amsterdam is something else— the centre is a hot pot of sex, drugs and tourists biking as though their tires are on fire, which is rife for misadventures, but I like a challenge. I looked at Utrecht and thought, now that is a fairy tale kinda town that has not just anyone can find misadventures in…
They say that you are who you associate with, so I’m not sure what this time in my life says about me, but I live with three Dutch guys, Jorick, Willem and Cees (pronounced Case). Here is a quick summary of what they do:
- Jorick: Historian/Ornithologist (the study of birds) by day & hard core rocker at night
- Willem: Sailed around the world for 2 years recreating Darwin’s route and is now a writer for a sailing/travel magazine
- Cees (pronounces Case): Spark Detective (that’s what I call him), he travels around the world doing the forensics behind electrical fires that occurred and coming up with betters systems
Have you ever been eating dinner and thought to yourself, “Something is missing, I really wish there was a smoke breathing tiger painting in this room,” well here, that is not a problem! Another special feature of this is just that—a painting of a tiger, with the mouth hole cut out, attached to a smoke machine.
Barcelona; The Beginning
Well these are just a few of the first sights of the incredible city of Barcelona. My residence is located in the small little area which is an inlet off of the city and is called Barceloneta. It is you stereotypical European neighbourhood; small roads, old buildings, smells of fresh bread every morning, cobblestone sidewalks and of course the main square where all Spanish locals, kids included, chat till late in the evening. I began my spanish course on September 3rd and had the most incredible class with the most hilarious spanish teacher ever, Miriam. She made reviewing my spanish grammar as easy as possible and focused more about telling all of us the best places to go out at night time in Barcelona!
But it was just the walking around and sight seeing that made this first week in Barcelona the best ever! My daily routine has become, Baguette with Chorizo and Cafe con Leche for breakfast at the local market, spanish class from 10:00-14:00 and then afternoons at the beach before the parties begin that evening!
And with the Erasmus student network, every single night in this city one can find a party to attend! Are first one was at Shôko Night Club where a couple of friends and I had beers on the beach for pre-drinks, went to the club for a free dinner with unlimited wine and champagne and then to be concluded with a 4:00AM swim in the ocean under the stars! It has been a great start to España!