A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

I was asked this week to write about my commute to and from my classes during the week. To be honest, I was (and still am) not entirely sure where to begin – and I think the confusion stems from the fact that my commute is never the same any given day. Now, there are a few reasons for this. The first is this: there are always at least two ways to get to any given destination (thus, an enormous variety of routes to explore). Personally, I have always preferred to avoid the more crowded stations in favor of more reliably roomy transportation, though this is not always an option. Some routes are quite scenic, including overlooks of various parts of the city, though often you are treated only to an identical sequence of grimy platforms. Beyond one’s preference of route, you also have to account for the endless variety of people one is likely to encounter in Paris’s unnaturally warm, labyrinthine tunnels. It is hard to imagine the many, many thousands of individuals that cross paths down there each and every day. One never knows if the next train will seat you next to a wealthy businessman, on his way to some important engagement, or across from a homeless musician, playing out his heart on an old, worn accordion before a captive audience. Though, in a sense, commuters are hardly captive. Easily two thirds of the occupants of any metro are thoroughly engaged with a private performance of some kind, made possible by a wide variety of earbuds, headphones, and what have you. Indeed, seeing people having a conversation on the dirty, rugged trains is rarer than seeing a 10-piece string ensemble playing jazz at an interchange (which I have seen – no picture unfortunately). And, to a degree, the companionable silence of the metro makes sense. We are all strangers on our own journeys – forced by chance and necessity to inhabit the same squeaking, soiled carriage for a few minutes before never seeing each other again. Why invest in those around you when the escape of your favorite music is literally a button press away? Why not distance yourself from the flow, observe and reflect, and go on your happy way when the train stops moving?
If you can’t tell, I’m challenging myself with these questions. Unpacking my nearly unconscious decision to shut out the real world for one of my own choosing when I can. I can’t say now whether I will follow up on the conviction that I should at least try to start up a conversation or two. I honestly can’t say at this moment if I will, or if I will retain the precious time I have to myself on my longer rides to read, to relax, to escape to someplace more familiar than the dark passages spreading like arteries beneath an ancient city above. Perhaps I am simply waiting for the right moment, the right stranger to talk to. However, if that is the case, I might be waiting indefinitely. Still, time is on my side, for the moment.

A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

These last two weeks have flown past in a nearly uninterrupted flow of lessons, experiences, and memories made with new friends, at new places, and with new adventures each day. Our extended orientation weeks have given us, as a group, time to get to know one another and our respective host families here in Paris. Last weekend, we took a group trip down to the Loire river valley, enjoying an extended look at the plains of France’s heartland. While there, we visited three different royal palaces, each with its own unique history, architectural style and artistic design. Chenonceau, featured right, offered an opulent view over the calm waters of the Loir river.

Arriving in Paris, I now begin to realize how much I had acclimated to the calmer pace of life we enjoy in such isolated areas as Farmville. To be sure, I have enjoyed being back in an ever moving, ever changing city-scape – I simply find myself fondly remembering cool, breezy days walking the Wilson Trail after a long day. It is hard to find anything quite so peaceful here, as even the calmest moments still teem with attention-grabbing details. Still, I have found ways to relax apart from the frenetic day-to-day activity of the City. Just this last Saturday, I (and a few others) visited the Musée d’Orsay – a veritable trove of famous and stunning art pieces from all over the world. Even the view from one of the upper floors of the museum was incredible. Before such famous and intricate works of art, one could not help but feel a little more relaxed about the future.

Looking thru the clocktower from inside of the Orsay Museum.

 

View near the study abroad center.

Each week brings with it a new variety of opportunities. Chances to experience new and incredible things, but also new challenges. We truly are living in a different culture, with different values, habits, and most obviously, language. One of the most humbling things about my time here is how it has showcased how much I have yet to learn to be able to express my thoughts to others in another language. And while I have several months here to begin to address that problem, I begin to think that time will run quicker than I expect it to. Despite this dour thought, I look forward to the coming days and weeks as my chosen classes commence and my routine for this semester finally emerges.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

 

Safety Abroad

So many of the individuals in my study abroad program have been abroad before this semester, not specifically to studying but in general they have all left the country before this year. For me, this is truly my first time out of country, and it is for a substantial amount of time and independent to a degree. That said, when you are abroad there are a lot of precautions to take while abroad that an aspiring traveler should consider. Now, I know this list is nowhere near revolutionary, but I want to discuss some of the major problems I have had to face since coming abroad.
The first thing I cannot recommend enough is proper research about your own cellular plan and available cell plans in your country of study. Personally, my plan on Verizon is incredibly expensive abroad, so my family decided to buy a local telephone in country. Now, here is the part about research, I did some digging but not nearly enough. I bought a phone at the airport, where only one of the two local companies was available. The company available only has monthly plans, instead of a pay-as-you-go, so every 17th I must return to a company store to renew; this fact is not a safety one, just a word of warning. That said, having a reliable phone is so incredibly important when you are meeting up with friends or need to work on a group project. When my friends and I go out on a weekend, we always make sure to text an “I’m home” text, so we know that we are all safe and alive.
My second word of advice is to get to know your daily area well, if someone stops you and asks how to reach a local landmark within a couple blocks of your house or school, then you should have the amount of knowledge needed to help them. This isn’t only to help you be a more helpful person, but on several occasions I have ended up close to home, but maybe 10 or so minutes away. Being able to say, “do you know X landmark?” to a local is so important in understanding how to find your house. More often than not, someone may not know the pharmacy right next to your house, but they may know the church or police station nearby. Part of this, as alluded to with my comment about “I’m home” messages, be aware of times of the day/week in which you may need to choose to uber or taxi home, instead of walking. I live fairly close to and from campus, so I can walk most days. I do usually uber home on Monday nights, because my class lets out rather late in the evening. Part of this, is a matter of time and discussion with the people who live in the same area as you, but take the time to learn about where you’re living.
This next one is easily the most pertinent to my life right now, and you will be told this by the study abroad office, by your on-site program directors, and even the STEP alerts: stay out of political action in country. Right now, there is a major national strike happening in Costa Rica; the group of strikers is composed of several major unions in protest of several problems with the government, but the unifying complaint is a current tax reform legislation. Now, whether or not I support the unions or the government is not important right now. This is an incredibly dangerous situation, which affects all points of life between transportation to academics. People have been hurt, others arrested, and school has been shut down several times. Now, the reasoning behind non-interaction is several-fold. First, and foremost, the “correct” answer is that you are abroad to study, and helping shape a political environment is not the purpose of being abroad. On a more relatable level, as a foreigner on a student visa, you can have your visa revoked for being arrested. You will have to pay for your fines, a new airplane ticket, and your experiences ends there. You will be sent home. Furthermore, a lot of study abroad programs absolve themselves of financial problems due to arrest and you will one hundred percent have to pay for that yourself. On a physical safety level, yes, as a study abroad student you have some of the best insurance you can really get for the price you pay to study abroad. That said, if you break an ankle or get physically harmed in some other way, you are possibly going to be dealing with that for the rest of your time abroad.
So once again, I’ll be ending with a quick word. From a current student abroad to someone who may go abroad someday soon: go abroad, but most importantly go safely. You don’t want to end up the person told as a precautionary tale because you got robbed four separate times in one semester (that’s a true story) or the person who didn’t finish their semester abroad because they had their visa revoked.

Seriously, some of these strike events are huge and make getting to classes nearly impossible.
So, in the event of something like this be prepared to take a different route altogether
and keep that local phone handy in case you receive a message that class is canceled.

Classses in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

Manuel Antonio, Cerro de la Muerte, and Monteverde, Oh My!

So, the past few posts I kept teasing information about my adventures outside of Heredia, and now that I have finally gotten pictures back from my trip to Monteverde, it’s finally time for an adventure post! Shortly after we arrived in Costa Rica, the group decided to take our first and only available long weekend to go to a town called Quepos, specifically about 15 minutes outside of Quepos, near a national park called Manuel Antonio. The actual little area around Manuel Antonio is basically a little beach town, but for all intents and purposes it is considered part of Quepos and not an independent town. Due to the proximity of the beach to the national park, we spent most of the time on the beach. This is where we get to the lessons learned from Manuel Antonio. 1). If you go to an unknown area, check the heat index; Manuel Antonio is actually one of the hottest areas in Costa Rica, and although the group stayed at two different hotels, neither hotel had air conditioning or even a ceiling fan. Yes, the hotels were only about $13-$15/night, but that’s probably because a person can barely stand to stay in the hotel during sunlight hours, making the hotel only usable at night. They also didn’t have towels, but that was fine, I had already prepared myself to buy a towel once I got there. Furthermore, if you recall, sunscreen is incredibly expensive in Costa Rica, so if a person is outside of his hotel all day, he better come prepared with a lot to cover up with or bite the bullet and invest in sunscreen… I did neither. My mistake resulted in one of the most bizarre sunburns I have ever had. It didn’t hurt at all, but boy howdy it peeled for nearly two weeks.

I’m not joking when I say that the redness stuck around for a full week, easily, and the peeling another week after that.
So, I’m here today to tell you, don’t let your stubborn stinginess stop you from enjoying a beautiful beach/national park because you decided to go with the cheapest hotel and no sunscreen. That said, Manuel Antonio was incredibly beautiful, and I cannot wait until the next time I go to the beach in Costa Rica, this time armed with sunscreen.

The beach at Manuel Antonio is very, very long. My group stayed at a hotel a little bit away from the real touristy area, which was nice because we got this wonderfully quiet view.

If Manuel Antonio is one of the hottest places in Costa Rica, I can say with confidence that Cerro de la Muerte is one of the coldest places in the country. For my Ecology and Sustainable Development course, we have several field trips planned in order to visit ecologically significant places in Costa Rica. Our first trip was to Cerro de la Muerte, and when the professor said that the mountain was cold, we laughed and shrugged off his warning. Now I have to say, I think that was a warranted reaction, ticos are “friolentos”, which is to say when it is 50 degrees outside they are pulling out heavy coats. As soon as we stepped off the bus, we realized that the professor wasn’t saying cold, as in tico cold, he meant just absolutely frigid.

Yup, we were not prepared for 36-ish degree weather, with rain and heavy winds.
Freezing our butts off aside, the trip to Cerro de la Muerte was really interesting, we learned about the types of adaptations that the mountainous species have, such as shorter plant heights or that bees nest under the ground at that altitude. This coming week, my class will be giving presentations about the plants and animals that we observed and the ways in which they interact with each other.
So, we dealt with extreme heat, then terrible cold, is there a goldilocks style medium climate that we could finally visit? Trick question, the other IFSA students and I actually already live in one of the most moderate climates in Costa Rica, but that doesn’t mean we can’t go visit one. About a week and a half ago, we visited the area known as Monteverde and its neighboring town Santa Elena. Having dealt with two crazy opposites, we all came with clothes for any weather so that we wouldn’t get caught unprepared again. Even had we removed the factor of temperature from my previous adventures and from Monteverde, I can say with confidence that Monteverde has been the most fun so far. The first day we visited a sustainable coffee plantation, called Life Monteverde, which is part of an association of twelve coffee farms in Monteverde run by an extended family. We got to see the ecological practices of the farm from composting to the use of a methane biodigester, and we got to do a little coffee tasting. The next day we hiked part of the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which was awe inspiring. The section we explored contained a section of the continental divide as well as a view of an area of the forest known as The Elven Forest.

We arrived at the observation deck during a lucky cloud break and the view was impossibly vast.

Following the adventure in the cloud forest, we were invited by the Monteverde activities director, Maricella, whom graciously invited us to her home to teach us how to cook “comidas tipicas” and we had such a fun time making dinner. Dinner included several types of empanadas, guacamole, chimichurri rojo, a salad, and patacones.

My friend Fu and I learned to make patacones, which is a sort of chip made by double frying and smashed green plantains. They were my favorite food of the night, without a doubt, and I’m definitely going to keep that recipe in my back pocket.
We finished the trip on Sunday with one more visit to the cloud forest, and we got to either zipline or walk the sky bridges at 100% Adventura Tours (I’m going to name drop here because this experience was so awesome and if anyone reading is thinking about going to Costa Rica, this place is a Must-Do). I chose to zipline, which was a new experience for me, and I am so glad I made that choice. It was an incredible adventure.

What an adventure! In this picture I am concentrating so hard because I’m about to hit the first landing platform and I was so focused on not dying I forgot there was a photographer.
The first line was terrifying, and I could barely bear the thought of stepping off the first platform, by the end I was hooting and hollering as Fu and I tandem rode the kilometer long “Tarzan Swing”. All in all, the adventures in Costa Rica have been so fun, but even more so, I am really glad that I get the opportunity to stay in Costa Rica for a few months with occasional adventures in between classes. This structure makes the adventures mean so much more, as they are a time to relax on one hand, and on the other hand I have time to “recover” between trips and better absorb every cool thing that I am experiencing here. This week I don’t exactly have a famous quote to close with, but I do have a closing thought: the things you’ll learn while you travel are rarely the lessons you prepare for. Like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy will tell you, always bring a towel with you, I will add on and say, sunscreen and a good rain jacket are travel essentials. Once you have those, keep an open mind, open plans, and have fun finding the hidden lessons. Nos vemos! I’ll write again soon!

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

Money Matters and the Formal Dude

So, the topics of my first couple of blog posts came to me rather easily, I basically just took the things rattling around in my head post-arrival and sorted the major things out until they were coherent enough for anyone to read. When contemplating the topics for this post, I reached out to my mom and asked what she thought would be interesting, and she mentioned that it might be a good idea to cover some of the things that had me stressed. One thing she brought up was the foreign concept of foreign currency: what does it look like, what is the exchange rate, and, finally, where does someone go to get money exchanged? There’s a whole load of things to tackle so let’s get started.

In Costa Rica, they use a currency called colones. There are 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 thousand bills, as well as 5,10, 25, 50, 100, and 500 coins. The colon bills are incredibly beautiful, in my opinion, each denomination has a different color, and feature art of Costa Rica, from famous buildings to plants and animals like sloths and butterflies. The 50 thousand colon bill, which none of the IFSA students have actually seen in person, is a gorgeous purple color and showcases the Morpho butterfly, Bromelia flower, and parasol mushrooms; these bills highlighting the biggest industry of Costa Rica, ecotourism.

Now, how much is that pretty 50 thousand worth in USD? Currently, as type this post, 50,000 colones is about 88.30 USD. So yes, an American could walk around with an app like XE Currency, which updates constantly, but a good rule of them is ‘multiply the colones by two and then remove the last three digits, so 50,000 x 2 = 100,000, remove the last three digits and it’s about $100. The overage is rather evident, but in a pinch 100 colones is $0.20, 500 is $1, 1 thousand is $2, and so on from there. Finally, where to exchange, and I assure you, readers, this is easily the most important question to be answered; I can say that from experience. Having just arrived in Costa Rica, one of my first instincts was to exchange about sixty bucks… at the airport. This was my first mistake in the country, the airport exchange booth actually short changed me at a rate of 480 colones per 1 USD. This means that a 50,000 colon bill would actually trade for about 104.50 USD at that rate, abysmal, really, when compared to the actual exchange rate. So places that will give you a much better exchange rate: any Banco Nacional ATM, there will be a bit of a surcharge to pull out from a non-affiliated bank but it’s really not that much, a lot of hotels will exchange cash and you’ll probably be lucky enough to have a receptionist who speaks English; or in a pinch most business will accept USD as far as I’ve observed but there is always a bit of a holdup when they check to see if your money is real and everyone kind of rolls their eyes at the foreigner who couldn’t spend five minutes at the ATM to get some local money.

One more quick topic before I end this post, and this is for the Spanish learners back at Sydney and just generally out there: what is “usted”, and when/how is it used. As a basic definition, “usted” is a formal second person pronoun, it takes the place of “tú”, but it acts more like a third person noun. That being said usage of “usted” varies from country to country, how it is used and if it is used at all, someone going abroad will have the best luck with doing a quick search on Google, or even better, asking a local. In Costa Rica, “usted” is used for basically everyone, until you feel close enough and comfortable to “tutear”, or speak with “tú”. Now, I’m the type of person that uses dude as a gender-neutral form of address. Retraining my brain to use “usted” instead of “tú” has been a little bit of a trick that if you could fit “dude” into an area of a sentence in English and it makes sense, then that’s a spot where “usted” can go in a sentence, for example, “hey, dude” -> “hola usted” or “can you pass me that, dude?” -> “puede me lo regalo usted?”. It’s not a perfect rule, and I’m sure the entirety of Spain just felt the hairs on the back of its neck raise in indignation, but the “dude rule” has worked so far for me.

So, before I leave, a closing thought: when it comes to learning new things and acquiring skills like on the spot money-handling or using a language facet you hadn’t used before, everything comes down to what works best for you. When it comes to money the 2:1 ratio is good enough for me and in the case of “usted” I don’t think I could have possibly thought of a more personalized method of learning than the “dude method”.

With that, cheers to weird brain shortcuts and learning the best way we can, nos vemos.

While none of us have actually seen a real life 50,000 bill, I did score this really rad towel this past weekend while in Manuel Antonio, but you’ll hear all about that in my next post about my trips to Quepos and Cerro de la Muerte.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

FOOD

The very first slide of the very first orientation presentation very poignantly said of Costa Rica, “welcome to Costa Rica, where eating too much is the new normal.” Having been here for a short stint already, I can fully assure you that the program director, Rodney, was not joking.

Most morning, Iliana prepares fried eggs, some form of meat, an assortment of fruit which always includes papaya, various types of bread, and occasionally gallo pinto. This last one is a very popular dish in Costa Rica and consists of rice, beans, and various ingredients that are often left-over from dinner the previous nights. Like I said, we don’t have gallo pinto every day, but it is popular enough that several other IFSA students have it every morning, and at McDonald’s for breakfast you can order a McPinto Deluxe, which is scrambled eggs served with a sausage patty, two hot tortillas, gallo pinto, and a sour cream-based sauce called natilla. I would say that lunch is usually standard fare, like sandwiches and such, but we’ve also had omelettes with chiles rellenos and a personal favorite, so far, sopa de mondongo, which is a slow-cooked tripe stew. Personally, I’m already a big fan of tripe, so Iliana was very happy to hear I was excited for and enjoyed lunch that day. Most days dinner is really a wild card, my first day we had chicken fajitas, made with a small chicken that she had slow-cooked all day it was mouthwatering.

While I think that Iliana’s cooking is some of the best food that I have had in the country, Tico fare is very, very delicious and often very varied. My friends and I have gone to a creperie near campus twice now and I’m still not terribly sure how I feel about a chicken and mushroom stuffed crepe, served with a potato and beet salad, but it was definitely a new experience. As I type this, I can already imagine several reactions of, “but you’re in Central America, why are you going to a french eatery?” A fair question, I assure you, but surprisingly, or not as Costa Rica is a country with a strong tourism economy, the people of San Jose and Heredia are a diverse group. Just within a mile of the university’s campus a person could choose from crepes, shawarma, pizza, and Asian fusion, in addition to the numerous Tico and Caribbean food spots.

One of my favorite restaurants so far is a place on the edge of the central valley called, Sibu. Sibu is a pretty awesome place with roots in Costa Rican cuisine but kind of more high-end. Sibu’s real claim to fame is its incredible fresh fruit juices, flavored with herbs grown in their garden, and also its made-in-shop from scratch chocolate, cocoa fruit to bar. When we arrived at Sibu, we all received a small complimentary hot chocolate, and when I say it is the best hot chocolate I have ever received, I don’t exaggerate. We ate our lunches, and finished off with dessert, Iliana and her sister splitting a gorgeous tiramisu, and I, a drink called chorotega. When I ordered the drink, the waiter’s face lit up and asked if I had any idea what I was ordering, and in broken Spanish I replied, “nope it’s like fancy hot chocolate, right?” And he laughed, thankfully took pity on me, and explained the drink’s background in English, but one of the owners of Sibu is a historian, and as such wanted to serve a drink that is as historically accurate to the cocoa-based drink that the Aztecs drank. It was a rich dark chocolate drink, based in water, with almond, chipotle, and sweetened with honey. Truly, one of the most delicious things I have ever had in my entire life, I convinced some friends to make a trip with me soon just to try it again.

I seem to have caught myself with in a pattern of tying things up nicely with a closing thought, so this week, for obvious reasons, I want to talk about the late Anthony Bourdain. Until recently, I was not familiar with his work until a close friend recommended Parts Unknown to me at the beginning of the summer. Of all the things he spoke about, Bourdain’s most pertinent belief was that to grow as a person, you had to travel and eat local, wherever you went. So, while I may not be super extremely excited to try cow tongue for the first time, later this week, I’ll be chewing on this quotation from Bourdain, “you learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together.” Here’s to learning all I can about Costa Rica and the people I meet here through the foods that they love and choose to share with me.

I’ll write again soon, nos vemos.

 

As part of orientation, Esteban gave us an introduction to local fruits which we probably hadn’t heard of before, and it was a collection that ranged from granadillas to mamónes chinos.

 

 

 

 

 

A picture my friend April Vollmer took of the infamous chicken and mushroom crepe, served with fresh lemonade, salad, and patatas.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

LANGUAGE

For those wondering what life is like in a country where you have the conversational skills of a child, if that, I can assure you that the experience is a humbling one. Starting at the very beginning, people who may not know me that well may not know that I’m a Spanish major. In conflict with this fact, I only started formally learning Spanish in the fall semester of my freshman year of college. The past two years have been trying; between my grammar knowledge from three years of Latin and the conflicting vocabularies of English, Latin, and Spanish, I have felt like I have been running in circles: using Latin words, throwing in the wrong preposition or pronoun, leaving out words entirely.

Things changed almost immediately after arriving in Costa Rica; suddenly I had to be speaking in and listening to Spanish 90% of the day. In the US, I can always leave my Spanish when I leave the classroom or put down whatever book I’m trying to read in Spanish, but I don’t have that crutch here in Heredia. Three days after arriving, I caught myself beginning to “just think, instead of translating each sentence,” as my friend Grace described it when we talked about our experiences so far. I have very clear memories from the past few semesters at H-SC in which I am listening to fluent Hispanic speakers and all I heard was “estoy hablablablablabla,” the words zooming around me like hummingbirds; currently, as I type, my host mom Iliana is in the living room watching the nightly news and I feel as if everything has slowed down to a manageable speed. I can finally hear distinct words when a person is speaking at their normal speed. Do I know exactly what the Ticos are saying, and can I form concise responses and conversation with them every time? No, but this breakthrough is a good start I think.

When it comes down to speaking, the biggest indicator that you, as a speaker, are doing well is that there are no indicators, no furrowed brows or little interjections. While many Ticos in the central valley have some level of English, often most people have little to no experience with speaking English, and in a way, I’m thankful for this barrier. I’ve been told that I’m the kind of person who has never met a stranger in my life. To have a barrier in communication is like having to walk through a wet and muddy field barefoot, which is to say extremely not ideal for several reasons. Because of the distance between myself and the Ticos linguistically, I’ve been pushing myself hard to achieve a level of conversation where I feel comfortable walking around Heredia. Adjusting to a different language is a big challenge for sure but daily conversation has begun to help me familiarize myself with sound of Spanish conversation. But, for now, as I wait for my ears to catch up, I’ll settle on bolstering my vocabulary with a Spanish language edition of The Shape of Water.

Finally, classes start this week and I couldn’t be more excited and equally terrified. So, here’s a closing thought, the tag line for The Shape of Water is “prepare yourself for a connection that goes beyond words.” While my number one focus in Costa Rica is to become more fluent in the language, there are so many experiences that I am gaining already from my time here, outside of my language learning. In a few weeks or so, when I’m at my wit’s end with my Advanced Spanish Syntax course, I’ll come back here to remember to look back on my experience so far, as a whole, breathe, and diagram that last sentence.

I’ll be writing again soon, nos vemos!

After a long day, I enjoy a good book and a cafecito in the mall, Paseo del las Flores, near my homestay.

Classes in Costa Rica 2018

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

ARRIVAL AND ADJUSTMENT

I have been in Costa Rica now for three days, and what is there to say but I still cannot believe that I am in Costa Rica. Before this past Tuesday, I had never left the country. While I did live in Hawaii for a few years and in a way that’s a whole different country, nothing could have prepared me for the first time I stepped out of the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose. The first thing that I came to recognize about Costa Rica, or at least where I have been so far, is the fact that the country is so incredibly active. I walked out of the airport door and there’s a small army of taxi drivers waiting to give you a ride; in Heredia, where I will be taking classes, there are always cars and always pedestrians doing their best not to get run over; even around my homestay in San Pablo, which is a suburb of sorts, people are constantly around hanging outside their house or walking to their jobs.

In all seriousness, I feel as though the “Tico” culture of always being outside is very tied to the wonderful climate that Costa Rica, and specifically the central valley, has to offer. Every day the temperature is between 60 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit, and there’s a very good chance that every area will receive just a little bit of rain. An interesting impact of the weather here, is the absolute uselessness of the weather app; fun fact: when the weather forecast says, ‘there is a 30 percent chance of rain’ what the forecast actually means is ‘within the forecast area, 30 percent of the prediction area will receive rainfall.’ So, when at least 90% of the forecast area receives just a tiny bit of rain, the forecast probably says 90% chance of rain, as it always does in San Jose, it is a good idea to always have a rain jacket, hoodie, or hat.

I arrived, stayed for a day at a hotel, and now I’m at my homestay. My “mama tica”, as IFSA-Butler refers to our host parents, Iliana lives about two miles from the Universidad Nacional campus, and we are slowly getting accustomed to being around each other. Iliana lives with her two dogs, Gia and Coco, and she is an incredibly talented cook, but I’ll be talking all about food in a different post. But now, to finish here’s a closing thought for future-me, for any other students studying abroad, for anyone thinking about studying abroad, and for all my friends and family back home having trouble starting ‘that new thing’. Whether or not you are a fan of Bojack Horseman, one of my favorite quotations from the show is as follows, “it gets easier, every day it gets a little easier, but you gotta do it every day. That’s the hard part.” Over the past few days it has been easy to get frustrated over my language skills or the difference in culture, but when I learn to let it go and keep moving, then I begin to progress. Even within the time I’ve been here, I’ve gone from nodding mindlessly to responding, as best as I can in Spanish , and occasionally in English, but that is okay because it may be hard now but each day it gets easier.

For now, nos vemos!

 

Shortly after we arrived, the estudiantes estadosunidenses had to get a picture together. Yes, I am the only guy, and yes, it is a bit of a big change from good ol’ H-SC

 

 

 

 

As part of our orientation, we all took a trip up to Monte de la Cruz on the outer edge of the Central Valley. The view was incredible and impossible to fit into one picture because it was so large, but the yellow jacket squad tried its best.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

Can’t believe that it is already that time for me to come back to the states!

I went to Vienna with another friend of mine from Hampden-Sydney. Vienna was one of the greatest cities that I have been to thus far. It was amazing to see the power of the Hapsburg monarchy. It seemed that every direction that I turned, there was another fantastic building. When I arrived back from Vienna, there were only three weeks left in the semester! I had to focus and complete my finals for Charles University because the next week I was going to Barcelona. It was not the sunny beach experience I hoped it would be, but I still had a great time. I rained every day, which was a bummer. The cheapest place that we could find to stay was a boat. This was not the yacht that I was hoping for but rather a small sailing boat. It was defiantly not good for someone who is 6’4, but I still enjoyed myself. The food was great, and I liked their Old Gothic Quarter. I enjoyed using the six years of Spanish while there even though I could not understand a word they were saying. I made an effort. Coming back, I knew time was running out, so I made sure to do anything else that I had not done yet. I bought plenty of gifts for my friends and prayed they would all fit in my bag.

For my last trip, I visited my friends from Hampden-Sydney Blake, Brendan and Zach in Dublin. Dublin was pretty, and it felt like America with an accent. The highlight of my trip there was going out into the Irish countryside, which is impressive.

Coming back, I had one week left to go, and everyone in my program was feeling nostalgic. I can affirmatively say that I am ready to get back to the States. I already know that my first meal back is going to be Chipotle and I can not wait to sleep in my bed. I am going to miss plenty things about Europe such as the excellent public transportation system in Prague. I am not excited about the long plane ride back, as I will have to leave my dorm at 4:00 am, but I am excited to experience summer in Charlotte again.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

 

I fly home from St. Petersburg today! And while I have really missed America—the English language, the following of traffic laws, the common courtesy of wearing deodorant—I thought I would write about how America is unavoidable while abroad. While most Americans have never thought of traveling to Russia, many American brands have; from food to movies to clothing, American products are unavoidable in Russia.

 

American fast food dominates every food court and touristy street corner of downtown St. Petersburg.

 

 

There are plenty of Russian chains as well, but I thought it would be neat for you all to see what American logos look like in Russian; no matter how many times I see a familiar logo in Cyrillic, it always strikes me as a little odd.

Even if you have not learned the Cyrillic script, I bet you can guess which restaurant is in each picture.

 

 

 

 

One interesting fact: most fast food chains in Russia sell beer. Here you can see banner advert in a Burger King advertising a “besplatna vtopoy pivo,” a “free second beer.” At first I was taken aback whenever I, walking through a mall food court, would see people eating McDonalds with beers out on the table—something you would never see in America—but now I think I’ve grown accustomed. The Russian attitudes toward drinking, despite stereotypes, are much more accepting of casual drinking and much more critical of binge drinking than those in America.

 

But the influence of American culture on Russian culture goes further than fast food. I often stumble across English words in the strangest of places. For example, there is a thrift store near my apartment in the northwest region of St. Petersburg literally called “sekond khend,” a mere transliteration of “second-hand.” This is just down the street from a large desert-themed shopping center called “Grahnd Kanion,” a mere transliteration of “Grand Canyon.”

 

 

And then there’s movies. Around 4/5 of the movies screened in Russian theaters are from Hollywood—dubbed in Russian—and Russian teenagers are probably more obsessed with the Marvel Universe than American teenagers. Once I was walking down the street with Tanya, a Russian friend of mine, when suddenly she pulled me aside to say “I can’t wait for Deadpool II come out!” At right is a photo of the Russian advertisement she saw on the street.

 

I have had a tremendous time in Russia, and hope to return some day. In my semester I learned an unbelievable amount of language, tried all the traditional Russian foods, and made some unforgettable memories and even more unforgettable friends. If you’re thinking of studying abroad in Russia, and up for an adventure, I would really encourage you to go for it!