A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

Slow goodbyes and Yellow Jackets – on partings during the “jillets jaunes manifestations de 2018”

I find that it’s always helpful to take a moment to look back over a period of time, or an experience of some sort, and to savor and appreciate it fully before my memory naturally applies a rose-tinted filter. It’s good to remember the good with the bad, the hard and the easy, things won and lost. As I approach the end of my semester abroad (six days to go from the writing of this post), I find myself preparing to leave with a certain sense of satisfaction. This semester has been awesome – the things I have done and accomplished in my time here are worth remembering. But, I think the time has come for me to go home. While no stranger to spending most of a year away from my family and friends back in the states, I find it beginning to weigh on me. It’s not homesickness (at least, not fully), but it does remind me of being homesick. Ideally, I would want my leave-taking of the semester to be some kind of a mature farewell to this place, time, and all the people I have met here.

On the other hand, Paris is not precisely a wonderful place to be just now. France enjoys a culture of political activity and vibrancy that, I think, outweighs that of most in America. Yet, sadly, when the circumstances come around, that same passion for politics lends itself to violent displays. It’s hard to write about, in many ways, because I want to distance myself from it and view it intellectually if I can. But at the same time, I am not sure how that is possible. It’s something I can feel on the metro from day to day – a sense of urgency and pressure holding itself over the entire city. Even as I scramble to get in my last few assignments and exams, I can’t help but look out onto the streets and see where tens of thousands of protesters have been gathering these last few weeks. It’s sad to see a city renowned for charming exploration and sight-seeing suddenly rendered off-limits to most of the public. It’s an interesting send-off, and not one I expected. All the same, it does make me glad to be going home, glad for the opportunity to rest, to speak English freely, and once more to the coming semester back at H-SC.

A year in London

Christian Blankenship
LSE
London, England 2018/19

After living in London for three months, I can now claim, rather confidently, that I have effectively adjusted to living here. Aside from developing a brisk walking pace to replace the traditional slow saunter that I have known my whole life, I have also found myself walking to practically every destination. I rarely use public transport, such as buses, taxis, or the underground, even though there are numerous stations surrounding my residence. The ease of navigating the London streets and the experience associated with it is much more valuable to me, and worth the longer travel time. Before becoming severely bogged down with schoolwork, I would walk the streets of London any free moment I had. I was averaging over 10 miles walked daily, and this was primarily without any purpose other than learning about the city. Even though I am much busier now, I still try my best to explore different parts of London I haven’t seen yet whenever I’m free.
Exploring the city and walking everywhere is very different from what I’m accustomed to in the US. Back home, I tend to drive to all of my destinations, though this is primarily due to living in a smaller town where everything is more spread out and there is little to no traffic. Back home, my free time was primarily spent either playing holes on a golf course or hitting balls on a driving range, but I have not been able to do that as frequently here. I have played golf three times since I arrived, at a golf course named Worplesdon Golf Club. This is a private course, but I am allowed to play there because one of the golf pros working there attended university in my hometown. He became close with my family because we played at the same golf course together, and he even attended Thanksgiving at our house while he was in the US. Even though I have only played 18 holes a few times, I still try my best to practice by visiting a driving range on the weekends. This can be difficult because I live in “Inner London” and the closest range is an hour train ride from where I live. However, I still have found the time to go at least every two weeks, and Winter Break is beginning soon so I’ll have plenty of time to play golf and hopefully travel before next term.

Classes in Costa Rica

Arthur White
Costa Rica
Fall Abroad 2018

Nos vemos, Tiquicia!

This post has been a long time coming and I have to say that it also is coming so soon. About a month ago, my program members and I got to visit the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica and it was incredible. One thing most people don’t know about Costa Rica is that most of the country isn’t on the beach, and it is in fact, not, an island. From the capital of San Jose, which is rather close to me, it takes about five to six hours to reach the nearest beach. Saying that, the Caribbean coast generally has the vibes that aspiring tourists have of the country. The beaches are gorgeous, the water is crystal clear, even after three nights of rain, and the Afro-Caribbean influence in the area is incredibly strong with Limonese music groups bar-crawling and playing for a bit at each new place on the weekends. One of my favorite parts of the trip was a trip to a Bean-to-Bar chocolate plantation, called Cari-beans. We got to see every step of the process from the acres of cacao trees throughout the plantation, to the seed pod fermentation and drying area, and ending with the little chocolatier kitchen. We also had a chocolate tasting of six 73% cacao chocolate made with beans from plantations all over. It was so incredible to taste the major differences between these chocolates prepared in the exact same way. My amazing experience in the Caribbean coast aside, this was the last scheduled program trip which meant departure was just around the corner and as I finish revising this article, departure is just around the corner, I leave on Saturday. I can honestly say that the end of semester has been the hardest of my life, many several page papers in Spanish, two 10- to 20-minute presentations, and of course, finals. Having, nearly, survived finals I have all the end of program things to hurry through, dinners with friends from my program and from Costa Rica, evaluations, and, also last-minute gift shopping because tomorrow is payday. In a bit, I’ll be making a last post to summarize some of my biggest lessons, once I’ve had time to step back and think about my program. For now, though, I think the lesson I’d love to end with is that of dealing with homesickness, so you’re not rushing to end your time abroad. For everyone in my program homesickness has been different between missing specific friends, or a pet, or hoping for a hamburger instead of another serving of gallo pinto. The thing that I want to press home is that because we all had homesickness due to different things, we had to deal with homesickness differently. So, my three suggestions are as follows. Being apart from family and friends does not mean you cannot be a part of your friends and family. I’m more than sure they will want to hear about your adventures, but what most people don’t expect is that you will want to hear about things back home, so call them and stay in touch. Second, indulging in home is not shameful and should be encouraged, just don’t go wild. Remember to try those restaurants you know you’ll never find back home, but don’t be ashamed because you really need some comfort McNuggets. Finally, sometimes homesickness is a nice thing to blame when things are going sour, like a bad test grade or trouble understanding some phrase used in everyday conversation. When you feel homesick, take a breath and take account of your past week. It is possible that if you can identify the problem and work on fixing it, it could either distract you from or eradicate almost entirely your homesickness. In his memoir, Roald Dahl said about homesickness, “[It] is a bit like seasickness, you don’t know how awful it is until you get it, and when you do, it hits you right in the stomach and you want to die.” Which I think is apt, it can hit out of nowhere, and just like seasickness everyone deals with it in their own way. A person could spend the whole boat ride tossing their lunch over the side or they could find their ginger ale, or root beer candies, or whatever their preferred method is. I hope that when you’re abroad you won’t get homesick, but if you do, remember your ginger ale may be different from someone’s Dramamine, and that’s okay.
Wishing you the best abroad, I’ll write again soon!

The history of Limon and the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica is deeply entwined with the history of the train rails. During the time of the track-laying, many people came and were brought from the Caribbean Sea and Asia. Even today, this effect is seen with the makeup of people who live on the eastern coast.

 

 

 

Something really, wonderful we learned about cacao trees is that like apples, every tree is completely different from another. In the same way that Granny Smith apples all come from cuttings of one tree, there are heritage strains of cacao. The plantation we visited elected not to grow commercially accepted heritage cacao, in order to keep prices down, also to have more control over the final taste profile of their chocolate.

 

A year in London

Christian Blankenship
LSE
London, England 2018/19

It has now been nearly two months since I arrived in London and began my studies at LSE. It has been difficult adjusting to the different class format here at the school, but it’s been a refreshing change. I’ve had to improve my studying habits and time management skills in order to properly take advantage of the many activities present in London, and to also keep up with the rigorous schedule here. Aside from the different class structure, I do slightly miss the short 5-10 minute walk to class from the ABC’s that I had last year. It currently takes me 25 minutes of brisk walking from my dorm in order to reach the closest lecture hall. However, I very much enjoy the walk to class every day. It’s a pleasant experience to prepare for class and the coming day. During that walk, I cross the Blackfriars Bridge, which provides me with a view of the River Thames along with the London Eye and St Paul’s Cathedral. This view has become especially nice the past few weeks when the sun is setting.
Adjusting to the different pace that people move and act here in London is much faster than back home. Aside from lunch and dinner, where people seem like they have all the time in the world, everyone seems to be in a huge rush to get wherever they’re going. It’s like everyone is running five minutes late to work at all times and cannot afford to be late anymore. This rushed attitude is extremely different from the sauntering that’s commonplace at Hampden-Sydney and back home in Danville. It’s taken quite a while in order for me to speed up my walking pace so that I can keep up with the people I’m with. Another thing about London that has surprised me is the food. Before I arrived, I was warned by many people who had previously visited London that the food was not very good. I came into the city extremely worried because we are not provided catered meals in a cafeteria and I’m a rather picky person. However, I have been pleasantly surprised by the food options. I have not yet had a meal I didn’t enjoy, and I’ve only resorted to eating McDonalds three or four times. Unfortunately, there is no Chick fil-A in England and that has been a huge struggle to deal with. Overall, the food has been delicious and the huge variety of cuisines has me excited to try new things every meal.

The view from Blackfriars Bridge at sunset

A semester in Paris with Sweet Briar

David McElrath
JYF Sweet Briar
Paris, France 2018

You know, I feel as if I should caveat my blog posts by assuring you that yes, I actually do have school work to do most of the time. What you don’t see (largely because I only remember it as a kind of edifying blur) are a great many hours sitting in large classrooms crowded with other students, most of whom speak French far better than I do. In terms of material, it’s pretty similar to what I imagine I would be learning back at H-SC – just with longer lectures, larger classes, and, mercifully, less homework. Overall, it’s nothing to complain about, but neither is it much to write home over either. Timed written tests are the name of the game here, of which I have already had two. They are highly structured affairs, and I would be lying if I did not mention that I was absolutely terrified going into my first one a few weeks ago for fear of messing up the format.

Visiting Mont St. Michel

But enough about that: it’s time for me to show you another string of unreasonably scenic pictures. October came and went in a flurry of schoolwork and travel – a weekend trip to Normandy lightening our spirits under grey, cloudy skies.

Coastal wall of St. Malo, Brittany

A wonderful trip to remember, full of ancient castles (acoustics for days!), historical battles, and galettes (the fancier, full meal version of crepes), as well as several hours on a surprisingly comfortable bus. We spent the better part of a golden afternoon strolling across and through the shattered and cratered cliff edge of Pointe du Hoc, as well as the American cemetery just inland from the D-day beaches.

Bunker at Pt. du Hoc

I have personally always held a profound respect for those in or with family in military service, as cemented by visits to places like that cemetery. While certainly emotionally painful, such opportunities to reflect are priceless, and will endure in my memory far longer than any fun romp through a part of restored medieval Europe.

Bayeux Tapestry

That all too short visit, while not my first experience with the monuments we build to the fallen, was more meaningful to me than our visits to the dramatic abbey Mont St. Michel, the seaside town of St. Malo, or the intricate and compelling Bayeux tapestry.

A year in London

Christian Blankenship
LSE
London, England 2018/19

For the next 10 months, I will be studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Studying here for the entire year was one of the factors interesting me the most because most programs do not last for the entire year. One of the things about studying at LSE that excites me the most is the different method of instruction practiced here compared to back at Hampden-Sydney. However, this new instruction style is also one of the things worrying me the most. Unlike in the US where there are typically two to three sessions per week, LSE has one lecture session and one class session per week. This type of instruction places much more responsibility on the student to learn the material outside of class. However, I have much more free time to explore the city, which I intend to take advantage of as best as possible. Most of my exploring so far has revolved around getting lost 1-2 miles away from my dorm and trying to find my way home, which has really helped me acclimate to the lifestyle of living in a major city.
Aside from studying at a prestigious university and living in the heart of London, London is also a travel hub, which makes traveling throughout Europe easy and cheap. The ease of traveling around Europe, also the rest of the United Kingdom, is one factor that I plan to take advantage of as much as possible. I also am an avid golfer, and many of the most historic golf courses are located in the United Kingdom. Courses like the Old Course at St Andrews, which is considered the home of modern golf, Carnoustie Golf Links, Kingsbarns Golf Links, and many other historic courses call Scotland their home. I also will have easy access to travel anywhere else in Europe for short weekend trips or during vacation after terms have ended. Overall, there are so many new things I’ve needed to adjust to coming from a small area like Hampden-Sydney because London is so different, but it’s a tremendous opportunity being able to study here that I intend to take advantage of.

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.