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!

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Only two weeks of my Russian study-abroad experience remain, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t missing home. I miss my family, my bed, and of course the rolling hills of Central Virginia. I miss the giant oaks and the fresh air and the rural night sky. Like any city, St. Petersburg is far from nature, covered in concrete, and shrouded in smog and light pollution (plenty of regular pollution too!).

Some animals have learned to tough it out in the city. Pigeons and seagulls are ubiquitous, and every night I fall asleep to the sound of stray cats fighting outside of my window. Some brave ducks appear every time a downpour floods a shallow field in the dvor, the central courtyard of the apartment complex. Even so, these slivers of nature are mostly sad: the pigeons are fat from the low nutrient bread diet that babushkas feed them, the seagulls are much the same (only meaner), and the ducks paddle through muddy water full of plastic bags and cigarette butts. At right you can see these ducks trying to eat actual garbage. Still, in my travels I have been surprised and delighted by a couple encounters with nature in St. Petersburg and abroad.

We’ll start abroad. Two weeks ago, I travelled to Helsinki for the weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the coast of the Finnish Gulf—Finski Zaliv in Russian—while touring the Suomenlinna Sea Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The granite boulders lying in the cold, clean water led up to patches of stubby grasses and small trees and bushes capable of braving the Finnish winter. A variety of seabirds paddled through the shallows and perched on rocks to preen themselves. I even saw a swan doing a weird neck dance that looked very silly. After months in a big city, that afternoon I felt like weeks of heaviness and mundanity had been lifted. I felt refreshed.

Then, just last week, I discovered a park not far from my apartment complex. I live northwest of the city center, in a spalnaya raiyon—which means “sleeping district”—inhabited mostly by commuters and retirees. Sleeping districts make up most of the area of St. Petersburg, and they all look about the same: rows and rows of identical, soul-crushing soviet apartment buildings interspersed with grocery stores, bakeries, and shaverma stands, of course. Don’t get me wrong—after a while the brutalist architecture and industrial wasteland becomes almost charming. Just a few days ago some friends and I noted how an abandoned electrical substation next to the institute where we study, with its massive rusted machinery and otherworldly aura, makes us feel oddly at home whenever we see it.

But despite these charms, I was overjoyed when I discovered Sosnovka Park just a few blocks south of my apartment complex. At nearly 750 acres, the park is massive, and most of those acres are covered with birch forest and meandering trails that cut between wider gravel pathways. These trails (one can be seen at right) are perfect for working up a sweat and getting a little muddy. Small ponds sans the garbage dot the eastern border of the park, and in the forest I can hear the chirping of songbirds, the rustle of small rodents and hedgehogs in the dry leaves on the ground, and the drumming of an occasional woodpecker. Make no mistake—it isn’t Eden. Still, it means a lot to find little bits of nature in the middle of the concrete jungle.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

Hello again from Praha!

It’s been almost two months now since I left the states. Everything seems to be going well, and I have finally started to travel to places that are outside the Czech Republic.

St. Patrick’s Day is not a very big holiday in Europe. From what I have seen, the partying and drinking is an American construct. That weekend I decided to visit a friend in Salzburg, Austria. First thing I noticed was how cordial the people were, and more advanced the country was verses the Czech Republic. That being said, everything was much more expensive.

Zach Wiggin, Nate Dracon and Blake Martin

The week after that, Blake Martin and Zach Wiggin came to visit me since they were studying in Dublin, Ireland. For the first time, I went to see Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral. We saw the actual window where the third defenestration of Prague took place, which started the 30 Years War. I was able to show them around the city, and for a day trip, we went to Pilsen. The pride and joy of the Czech Republic is the invention of Pilsner and their award-winning beer, Pilsner Urquell. We toured the town, which like almost all European cities, has a large square with a cathedral in the middle. Pilsen is also home to the third largest synagogue in the world, Great Synagogue. We also toured the city’s massive underground, where people created pubs to avoid drinking laws in the 15th century.

This week is Easter, which is a much bigger deal in central Europe than in America. No, they do not believe in the Easter Bunny, but have much better traditions in my opinion. Prague, being a large city with western influences, does not participate in many of these traditions. Instead, the city sets up large Easter Markets for the weeks leading up to Easter. In villages, people walk around to their neighbors’ houses where the men receive shots, and the women collect chocolate Easter Eggs. Additionally, Easter Whips are created by weaving small twigs together. These whips, are used by men to tap women, to promote fertility during the whole next year.

My parents are coming this weekend, and I am excited to go to Dresden, Germany and Vienna, Austria with them.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

Today was the first day I saw grass in Russia. Even though we’re halfway into March and celebrated the official start of spring two weeks ago, the daily temperatures here in St. Petersburg are in still the mid-twenties. Take it from me, everyone in Peter is eager to see when spring will actually arrive!

This spring is special because on Sunday, March 18th, The Russian Presidential Election will be held.

Election adverts are all over the place: bus stops, billboards, shop windows, the YouTube homepage, on the radio, and even text messages that the Russian government sent out to every single Russian cell phone. Just today I saw a flower stand covered with five identical posters advertising the election.

You can see some examples pictured at right. The billboard says Nasha Strana, Nash Prezident, Nash Vybor!, which means “Our Country, Our President, Our Choice!” The bus stop says Vybirayem Prezidenta—Vybirayem Budushee!, which means “We Choose the President—We Choose the Future!”

It may seem odd to Americans that the Russian government spends enormous amounts of money advertising the election, while the candidates hardly advertise at all. The reason we have the opposite arrangement is that Americans and Russians view elections in different ways. In America, everyone obsesses over presidential elections: they consume every news story, fill every personal conversation, and are unavoidably touchy subjects at Thanksgiving dinners. In Russia, things are quite different. Even though the election is just days away, no one is eagerly awaiting election results; everyone knows that Putin is going to win, and most people will not bother to vote.

It’s not the Russians are so disheartened by the Putin regime that they think voting is useless. In fact, most Russians want Putin to win, but the lack of competitive alternative candidates and the massive public support for Putin makes most people think that voting is a waste of time. One professor of mine told our class that “Why would I vote? I know Putin will win, of course, so I will stay at home.”

However, there are also many Russians who will deliberately boycott the elections on Sunday. These are supporters of Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader and primary opponent of Vladimir Putin, who has been banned from running for president because of felony charges against him. Navalny supporters insist that the trumped-up charges against Navalny are politically motivated, and that the election is sure to be rigged. These supporters held large protests in over a hundred Russian cities in late January to call for an election boycott; they are also likely to hold reactionary protests after the election.

I will be in Moscow for the election, and am really looking forward to the experience. After that, I will be flying to Tbilisi, Georgia—where daily highs are in the mid-sixties—for my spring break.

Spring in the Czech Republic 2018

Nate Dracon
Charles University 2018

dobrý den from the city of Prague, Czech Republic!

I have been in the Czech Republic for almost a month now, and the differences between here and the U.S. are striking. Getting over wasn’t a problem, even for
a 6’4 student. I would just say that I am accustomed to never having enough leg
room. We first stopped for two days in London before taking a short flight to
the Czech Republic. The first thing that made me appreciate that I was in a very
foreign place was arriving at the airport and being unable to read anything
since it was all in Czech. From there, it was straight to the dorms, and the
next day I started my Czech language class. I never realized how good I had it
learning Spanish until I took on the Czech language which doesn’t use vowels.
During that two-week, 5 hours a day language class, I was able to use my spare
time to travel the Czech Republic. The first week, I went to Czechy Krumlov and
visited an ancient castle. The second week, I took a two day trip to Monrovia. I
had a great time on this trip as our group was able to visit Brno, have a
private dinner in a wine cellar dating back hundreds of years, and visited The
Battle of Austerlitz Memorial. My study abroad group is comprised of about 40
kids from all over the U.S., and we are all getting along reasonably well.
Classes at Charles University just started so they are pretty uneventful so far,
but there is so much that I have already learned from living in Prague that I
will try to break it up into categories!

History
Being a History major, I was excited to visit a city that has been virtually
untouched for almost 600 years. In fact, my school, Charles University, was founded in the 14th century. I never realized how young America was until I learned about the statues on the Charles Bridge. I was initially disappointed to learn that they are not original since they are made out of sandstone. Therefore, they need to be replaced every 300 years, and I realized that the current
statues might be older than America itself. The fact that the bridge has
replaced its statues multiple times since the 1300s is amazing to me.

Social Interactions
It was hard to imagine how much we take for granted in America until I visited a
country that was communist until the 1980s. Communism affected, and still
effects, the lifestyle and culture of the Czech people. It seems that the Czech
people have real trust issues with one another rooted in their fear of the
communist secret police. No one talks to one another, and no smiles are
exchanged in public. Any common business transactions, such as buying food, is
done with borderline rudeness from my perspective growing up in North and South
Carolina. Same can be said for the interaction between men and women. Prague is
truly a man’s world where women need to be careful about what they say and how
they dress, especially when it is late at night. It has been difficult for many
of the girls in our group to adjust to this since America is a very
forward-thinking compared to an eastern European city when it comes to
interaction between men and women.

Living in Prague
Prague is a beautiful city, just not particularly where I live, which is in a
large dormitory. That being said, I mostly buy my food at the grocery store
except for the burrito place I frequent called Burrito Loco. I have been going
there every day since I got here since it’s close to the gym I joined. I think
that I am their only American “regular”. On Wednesday, they actually smiled at
me and gave me a free brownie, so I must be making progress! My dorm is about a
15-minute commute by metro to city center. I live in an area of the city that
was built by the communist, so it’s just what you might imagine; dark, grey, and
everything looks the same. In fact, it’s so bland that our guide told us that
after the communist left, the city had to paint each building a different color
since kids could not tell the difference between them and would get lost trying
to get home after school.

Food
A great thing about food in the Czech Republic, as compared to the U.S., is that
everything is cheap. I eat three meals a day for under $10 each. Czech
food is good, but there is little variety. It mostly consists of some stew with
meat and dumplings. It is straightforward, and I got tired of it quickly.
Thankfully Prague has excellent international food, and as long as you stay away
from the tourist areas, the food is reasonably priced.

Being in Prague has been a great experience so far, and I look forward to
sharing more in the upcoming months.

Spring in St. Petersburg 2018

David Bushhouse
Peter the Great St. Petersburg Polytechnic University 2018

I’ve been in St. Petersburg for less than a month, but have quickly noticed that шаверма, shaverma, is the most widespread and popular street-food in the city. In St. Petersburg, Shaverma stands are everywhere: next to every Metro Station, down nearly every alley, and in every clubbing district. Since shaverma stands are open 24 hours, it is the go-to drunk food for St. Petersburg locals, who call it ‘korm,’ which literally translates to “animal feed.” It’s unhealthy, always comes with a stomachache, and, as the locals say, will give you food poisoning every fifth time you eat it. But boy is it good.

Chicken, lamb, and goat is stacked onto a vertical spit and slowly grilled, creating a column of meat that is shaved then into smaller pieces. This method of cooking was originally developed in Ottoman Turkey in the 19th Century and quickly spread to the surrounding region, giving rise to the Turkish doner kebab, the Greek gyro, and the Arabic shawarma. Incidentally, the names of all these dishes reference the rotational grilling method—the most obvious being the Greek gyro (think gyroscope).

In shaverma, the shaved meat is served with tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and a kefir-based sauce (similar to tzatziki) in a large tortilla-like Caucasian flatbread called lavash. Russian shaverma was invented by Central Asian immigrants, and is both greasier and less spicy than its distant Arabic cousin. Shaverma is cheap too! For 150–200 rubles (~3–4 dollars), depending on the stand, you can get a giant meal-sized shaverma that would cost at least 8 dollars stateside.

Shaverma stands are often run by Central Asians like Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs—the nearest shaverma stand to my dorm, shown in the picture, is run by a Tajik family. In Russia there is a good deal of racial discrimination against Central Asian immigrants, who can often only find work in low-skill sectors of the economy. However, in the same way that Chinese restaurants enabled Chinese families to enter the middle class in the face of racial discrimination in the United States, many Central Asian families in Russia have been able to enter the middle class by opening shaverma stands.

As I mentioned before, Russian shaverma does come with an uncomfortably high risk of food poisoning. In 2016, Moscow city officials threatened to ban the sale of shawarma, and physically removed a few stands, due to the high percentage of stands that failed safety standards. The public backlash against this “Shawarmageddon,” as newspapers called the crackdown, was massive, and shawarma stands in Moscow remain open for business despite the public safety concerns. The truth is that for most Russians shaverma is a guilty-pleasure food, and they simply do not care about the safety concerns; they love shaverma. And, speaking for myself and my fellow exchange students, Americans love shaverma too!

“Bon Voyage” 2017

Semester at Sea Experience
First and foremost, I would like to say Thank You for providing me funding that allowed me to participate in the Semester at Sea Program. With the scholarship, I was able to obtain my passport, visas, and travel expenses. Semester at Sea was an extraordinary experience to say the least. Even though I was only in different countries for an average of 4 days, the experience I had is invaluable. From being able to visit the Taj Mahal to hiking the Great Wall and from trying different foods to, most importantly, talking to the local people, I am extremely grateful. Also, I am extremely grateful to explore my roots in Africa; I visited Slave Castles in Ghana and I visited Nelson Mandela’s Jail Cell in South Africa. Even though this was a dark road to travel, it was imperative that I explored all of my history, and these experiences have helped me grow in my own culture. Even though I traveled to 11 different countries, I learned that there are two similarities that are the same in all of them. One is that everything is “Same, Same But Different;” the other I learned from a Trader in Ghana named Stephen who said, “No matter where you go there will be good people and bad people.” These two things taught me that people are one in the same everywhere; however, they just may have different ideals and ways of doing their daily routines. I have learned to be more understanding and try learning other peoples’ ways instead of enforcing my own, and I learned how privileged I am, and I want to give back to everyone.
God Bless

To Whom This May Concern:

I, Mr. Shemar Mandell Blakeney, would like to truly say thank you for providing me funding for the Semester at Sea Program. This program was invaluable, and to be able to participate in it is amazing. By God’s Grace, I was able to attend. Being an African American male from a single parent household, I do not even know how blessed, humble, and privileged I am to have been able to participate in the Semester at Sea program. I am truly grateful and thankful for the scholarship you granted me.

Blessings and Love,
Mr. Shemar Mandell Blakeney