Germany Thus Far: One Year

One year is a long time to be abroad; however, it does not feel like it has been so long. Thinking back over this past year, I’ve done a lot. I’ve climbed mountains, literally and figuratively, since I first arrived.

First Alps

Let’s break down some of this year’s events:

  • I navigated German bureaucracy (eek!) and received my residence permit.
  • I traveled to Ulm, Kempten, and around other parts of southern Germany.
  • I explored Prague, Czech Republic and southern France.
  • I saw the Alps for the first time. Then I climbed them. Oh, how I loved that.
  • I continually got to know my new home city of Konstanz. I have to admit it’s pretty cute for a German college town.
  • I celebrated holidays with traditions that baffled me. (See Christmas…).
  • I went sledding “for real.” Yes, there is a proper way to do it.
  • I attended the international wedding of two amazing friends I met in Belfast. *Insert warm fuzzies here.*
  • I started learning German and have made some considerable progress for someone who did not speak it upon arrival. Although, I have to say that my Denglish is much better.
  • I have become fairly used to life in Germany. That is, I’m not as awkward about Bretzeln, the Autobahn, interacting with Germans, or any of that other typical German stuff. Note that I said “not as awkward.”
  • Last but not least, I survived my first year of graduate school in Germany. Hurrah!

First Hike View

Somewhere in between residence permit paperwork and looking at the Alps across the Bodensee, I finally started to integrate. Going to the grocery store isn’t scary now. I watch some shows on ZDF alongside Netflix. I even got used addicted to the sparkling water that the Germans love so much. Seriously you guys, I cannot get enough of it.

I realize that as time goes on, most people I interact with are German, as opposed to my previous study abroad experiences where I mostly interacted with other international students. At the same time, I talk less and less to most friends in the States. To be honest, I’m okay with that.

P1640777

You see, moving to Germany and making it so far was not just a transition from the States to Germany. It was a transition in lifestyles and goals. Therefore, it is natural that some friendships fade and others blossom. I never felt that American, and I especially felt increasingly disconnected after my two previous experiences abroad. I feel really disconnected from most American now, geographically and ideologically.

Don’t understand? I am from Missouri, a red state, yet I am extremely far-left. I’d say I’m further left than most Americans on most, but not all, issues. So not only am I half-way around the world, but I also find it hard to agree with my fellow citizens on policy. Most of these ideas have been shaped by what I have experienced during my travels to several countries, in addition to my studies. I think I speak for many millennial expats when I say that we simply don’t know why the US doesn’t learn from other countries. Still, I digress…

As time goes on, I wonder how I got certain ideas into my head. For instance, my career goals are entirely different now. I thought that I wanted to work for an organization like the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. I still support a lot of their development initiatives, but I know that working in that type of environment would leave me incredibly unhappy. The sticky bit is that I am still trying to figure out what exactly I will do after I get my degree, but that’s okay. One step at a time.

Finally at the Astronomical Clock!

The funny thing is that since I have been here, my time horizon has shortened dramatically. I focus on one semester at a time, or the duration of one residence permit at most. There is no way to tell how long I will be here, although I hope it will be for much longer than my current residence permit.

Since I am not worrying about time so much, it has been easier to relax. I think a lot of stress in my undergrad career came from thinking about “life after college.” That is such a stressful way to think about a college career. Now my stress comes from “life through these end-of-semester exams.”

Cows in the Mountains

As I’ve stated several times before, this is my third study abroad experience. It’s also the longest time I have ever been away from Missouri and my family. Going home eventually will be nice, but it will only be for a visit. (Sorry, guys!)

I was hooked on travel before I came, and now one might say that I am hooked on living abroad. Here’s to my first year in Germany and many more years of living abroad.

Kosntanz Seenachsfest 2016

Prost and cheers!

I Finally Went to Prague: Part I

Back in May I finally took a long-awaited trip to Praha (Prague), and now I am finally writing about it. I have already talked on this blog about how I have wanted to go to Prague since I was a tiny student in high school, so I will not explain again why this trip was exciting. Instead, I’ll just show you how amazing my trip to Prague was. Since there was a lot packed into this weekend, I will be writing three posts to avoid one super-long blog post.

Prague Clocktower
Prague Clocktower

After arriving and finally finding our hostel, we set out to explore the city. The first thing I wanted to see, and arguably the reason that I have wanted to go to Prague for so long, was the Astronomical Clock.

Astronomical Clock in Prague
The Astronomical Clock in Prague

This clock dates back to the 1400s and consists of the astronomical dial (the top one), a dial with the calendar on it (the bottom one), two windows at the top from which wooden figures appear and other figures on either side of the dials.

Every hour the clock chimes and wooden figures of apostales come out of the doors. Several of the statues by the dials move, my favorite being the skeleton meant to represent death. Don’t ask what that says about me as a person! Oh, and the golden bird at the top flaps its wings. If you want to get a better idea of all the moving parts, you can find a lot of examples on, where else, Youtube.

Finally at the Astronomical Clock!

Anyway, one of the main reasons for this trip to happen on the particular weekend that it did was because there were students from my undergraduate univerisity spending a May Term in Prague. One of those students is a very good friend of mine who I had not seen since my own graduation day in 2015. Meeting up with her for dinner and hearing all the gossip news from my alma mater was entertaining and refreshing.

So on to the next day! Right down to exploring, as usual. You know I could not resist Charles Bridge right away. The river was calming to be near, and I didn’t feel so claustrophobic like I did in the narrow streets and alleys of Old Town.

Prague Bridges

The medieval-looking bridge on the left is KarlMánesův Most (Mánes Brige). I used both bridges more than once to cross the Vltava River. No idea how any of it is pronounced as I only ever used maps and signs to figure out where I was, and I don’t speak Czech.

While we’re talking about language, you should know that it was no problem getting by in Prague. Just about everyone spoke quite understandable English. However, I will say that while this is the case for many international cities like Prague, it is not the same in villages or smaller cities. I’m looking at you particular Americans who think that everyone in the world (except for Mexicans apparently?) should and does speak English in addition to their native language.

Stereotypes aside, let us continue across the bridge. Over the river you can find more jaw-dropping architecture, touristy shops, and delightful foods. One of those delightful foods that can be found throughout Prague is trdelník.

Trdelník

Trdelník is essentially pastry dough wrapped on thick rods, covered in sugar or cinnamon sugar, and toasted to perfection. Then, the baker slides them off the end and serves them up. Both street vendors and shops made them for take-away. Some places even shoveled fresh fruit or ice cream into the middle. My favorite was to get it with melted chocolate coating the inside. I may have eaten more than one trdelník to savor its many varieties.

Now that I have your mouth watering, I’ll leave you with these happy thoughts of astronomical clocks, bridges and pastries from Prague. Stay tuned for parts II and III.

Cheers!

 

Germany Thus Far: Half a Year In…

That’s right. Half a year. Six months. In honor of that stunning amount of time, I wanted to write an extended “Germany Thus Far” post. Just to warn you, this post is more reflective than it is story-telling.

*  *  *

Sitting on the ferry a few days ago, I looked out at the mountains. They’re still snow-covered even though daffodils and an assortment of other flowers are popping up all over Konstanz. I was listening to a podcast discuss reactions to the recent terrorism in Brussels. A sound clip of Obama’s reaction played.

“I understand, when we see the sight of these kinds of attacks, our hearts bleed because we know that could be our children.  That could be our family members or our friends or our coworkers who travel to a place like Brussels.  And it scares the American people.  And it horrifies me.  I’ve got two young daughters who are growing up a little too fast, and I want them to have the freedom to move and to travel around the world without the possibility that they’d be killed.”

Barack Obama, 23 March 2016

For some reason, I had a knee-jerk reaction to his comments. I immediately wanted to respond to him, to tell him that the “possibility” of which he speaks doesn’t matter. I have a grandmother who especially worries a lot. However, no matter how much she, or the rest of my family, or my friends, or anyone else worries, I’m not going to go back to the States.

If we allow ourselves to live in fear of the “possibilities,” then we will never experience the world. I for one would not feel fulfilled if I were not where I am today. This fear that leads us to restrict ourselves, to be isolationists, is exactly what the terrorists want us to feel. By giving in, they win. If anything, I will stay here in Europe just to stubbornly defy the wishes of terrorists.

This fear that people have about terrorist attacks, Syrian refugees, Muslims in general… It’s ridiculous. Statistically speaking, since 9/11 only three refugees in the United States have been arrested on terrorism charges, and no refugees have been successful with terrorist plots. Want more statistics? I am more likely to be killed in a car accident back in Missouri than I am to be killed by terrorists here in Europe.

My point is this: Fear cannot control our actions. I have not let it control my choice to move to and stay in Germany. I didn’t let fear hold me back from studying in Northern Ireland. I didn’t let fear hold me back from spending May Term in Mexico.

Going back even further, my 18-year-old self didn’t let fear hold me back from moving half-way across the country for college, to a state where I knew no one. When I think back over all of my accomplishments and challenges in life, I realize that while I may have been worried or even terrified, I never chose not to do something because of fear.

That’s when it hit me.

*  *  *

Ever since I came to Germany I have been stressed about one thing or another. How am I going to manage this presentation? Will these student loans ever defer? Will I ever understand German? Will I get the money I need for my second year’s residence permit? Why am I not understanding x political theory? What happens if I fail? What happens if I decide this isn’t for me?

So many questions and not enough answers. I worry all the time that something will not work out. I do not want to have to go back to the United States, and I do not want to look like a failure. When I was thinking about how stupid it is to be afraid to travel based on the rare chance one might be killed in a terrorist attack, I realized how much of a hypocrite I am.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what happens with graduate school. Yes, there are consequences and outcomes to my actions, but in the end, life goes on.

So what if I get sent back to the States? It’s not a death sentence. I could just work three jobs at the same time again (or one higher-paying job), and then return to finish the program, albeit late. Sure, I might be pretty unhappy about having to leave, but I’d have the possibility to return.

So what if I decide graduate school isn’t for me? I have my days, but so far I am sticking with it. A lot of the reason is I feel like I’m not good enough to be here. It takes daily reminders to myself to remember that I’m here mainly because I worked hard to be here, not because I was lucky (though I’m sure luck and white privilege were also factors). I did get accepted, not rejected, into the program after all.

So what if I fail? While wonderful friends can reassure me as often as they want that I will not fail, I very well could. I could keep letting impostor syndrome tell me that I will never understand these theories. It could be the case that I bit off more than I can chew with this particular educational path. But so what? Graduate school is hard. People fail sometimes. At the end of the day, I still have a Bachelor’s degree and a set of passions that I could apply to earn a living.

I have been so busy worrying about all the “what if’s” in my life that I’ve managed to allow myself to have, hands down, the worst semester of my academic career. If I were to apply the same fearless approach I have towards living abroad to the other parts of my life here in Germany, then I’d be a lot better off.

*  *  *

If you’ve been following along on this blog, you’ll recall that I counted ordering what I wanted at the bakery as a victory. There are a lot of little things here that are more difficult because there’s a different language, or a different set of residence laws, or a different education system. Even the things I find easy in Missouri become difficult when I try to do them in Germany. If the easy things are hard, try imagining how much more difficult the hard things are.

Still, as I think back over these first six months, I know that things wouldn’t be nearly as difficult if I were to just overcome my hesitation. I need to use the same bravery that I have walking up to the edge of a cliff to start chucking out some (most definitely horrible) German sentences.

To be honest, whether I fail graduate school or not, I think that my most critical concern with being in Germany is whether or not I can learn the language and get along in everyday life.

So far I’ve managed to get along at bakeries, grocery stores, public transportation, restaurants, etc. I also found a part-time job to help with the financial worries. I have even managed to do alright with socializing while at a table full of Germans. I think I have the basics all together, I just need to start applying speaking German to all of these situations.

I know it takes time, but I’m so impatient. I just want to be able to speak German, you know, effortlessly and without hard work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. Instead, I’m stuck reminding myself that I have to stop being afraid to speak horrible German. To begin, let’s see how many times I can confuse der, die, and das in one day….

*  *  *

In reflecting on these past six months, I’ve done a lot of really cool things. I went sledding down a mountain. I climbed to the top of a really tall church. I went hiking in the Alps. I adjusted to living in a city older than my home country’s government. I celebrated holidays new to me, and different to me. If ten years ago someone would have told me I would be doing these things, I’d have laughed.

P1640777

While all these things are great (and I mean epic!), I have to think back about why I originally decided to come here. I came for the education, of course. I also came to Germany because I want to actively live the globally-oriented life I was fostering at my undergraduate college for four years. Professionally, I wanted to gain experience living abroad and grow a network in Europe. These are compelling reasons, but there’s something deeper when I really think about my motivation.

I didn’t want to take the safe, steady route after I graduated. I didn’t want to just settle for a “real job” in the States. I didn’t want to make myself work at a secure job with retirement benefits just to pay off my student loans and have the promise of “someday I’ll travel.”

Instead, I chose to seize the moment. I put all of my energy into graduate school applications and never even looked at a job ad. When I found out I was accepted, I put all my time into working summer jobs to finance my time here. At the end of the summer, I put all of my financial resources into the big move. In other words, I went all in.

Along with the guidance and unwavering support of friends and family, I’ve managed to move abroad successfully. Regardless of what happens, I’ll always have some great experiences to remember and stories to share for the rest of my life. I’ll always know that I broke down some pretty daunting barriers to make “the German graduate school dream” happen.

*  *  *

It was winter last year, when sitting on my bed I looked over some program requirements. “This is it,” I thought. The University of Konstanz. For a moment, my breath caught and the world stood still. This one felt right.

I checked the admission requirements, and I fit them all. I looked the city up on a map. Approving of the location, I went to the two professors I most trusted and asked their opinions on the program. Hearing that they both thought it seemed to be a good fit for me, I started my application.

I can pinpoint several pivotal moments in my life. At the time, none of those moments seemed particularly special. I simply made decisions, not knowing how life-altering they would be. The moment that I decided to come to Germany I had an inkling that I may be off my rocker, but I seized the moment and went for it anyway.

To my Baldwin sisters who are graduating in less than two months, I hope you find your own moments. To all of the other wonderful people in my life who are undergoing incredible changes, stand by your moment. Go all in. It’s worth it.

Cheers!

Germany Thus Far

Before I dig into the substance of this post, I need to give a shout out to my incredibly determined Aunt Kara. Kara decided to go back to school and recently passed her TEAS Test. Now she has been admitted into a nursing school program that she’s been working towards for a little over a year now. Congratulations!

Now, I’ll celebrate a little bit more because today is the one month mark of my time in Germany! I’ve survived! To note the milestones and adventures I have living here, I’ve decided to write one post every month summing up what it is that I’ve been doing.

Travel

I arrived at the Munich airport before doing a bit of travel around southern Germany. I’ve climbed the tallest church in the world at Ulm. I’ve been exploring all over the city of Konstanz, my new home. I’ve also traveled to Kempten, and south from there towards the Austrian border.

For the most part, I’ve been staying put as I’m adjusting to my new life here in Germany. As the Christmas Market season kicks off, you can bet I’ll be heading back to Ulm for the biggest Christmas Market in the south, as well as visiting others around the south of Germany, and perhaps even beyond Germany.

Ulmer Münster

Studies

I completed orientation this month and started my Master’s degree in Political Economy at Konstanz Universität. I’m taking four classes for my program, and two German classes. I’ve also, as of this morning, conquered my first presentation and paper for a graduate course.

German

Alongside my uni studies, I’m learning German. The status update on my language skills is that they are still basically nonexistent. I’m working at learning German bit by bit every day. I am happy to report that after running into a lot of doors, I’ve finally learned that drücken means “push,” and ziehen means “pull.” I’m counting this as progress. I suppose it is also progress that I successfully asked the pharmacist to get me some cold medicine last week, and I also have ordered at a bakery all by myself twice now!

Bonus

On top of all these things I’ve done and accomplished this month, I was able to attend the graduation of some of my friends this past Friday. So, congratulations to my German friends for graduating from Hochschule Kempten (Kempten University of Applied Sciences). It’s strange to think that a year ago we were all studying in Northern Ireland together.

Cheers!

Ready for Class, I Think…

Last week I finished out my orientation program at Konstanz Universität. They told us about classes, registration, and all that stuff. The way it works, we don’t sign up for classes. You go to whichever strikes your fancy, or those which are required by your programme (my situation). Later, you register for the exam. This means that everyone can check out any class and attend lectures before choosing.

So then comes the part where you have to be enrolled in the school to sign up for an exam, or have a student ID, or check out library books, or even just have a school email address… You need a residence permit! Mine is still being processed, so I can’t enroll yet. I can still go to class, but I’m quite frustrated with how slowly everything goes.

Along with finishing last week’s orientation activities, I finally got to see their brand new library, which just opened about two weeks ago! It’s pretty fancy, and I think that they’ve done a great job with aesthetic design there.

Inside the library...
Inside the library…

So that’s the technical side of it. Moving on to my programme, I finally met some of the students studying the Master’s in Political Economy with me. In total, only 7 of us were accepted. Roughly half of us are international students. This will surely make for an interesting next two years, and I’m happy to have finally met my study mates.

Now, there’s one thing that remains the same: the need for school supplies. I stuffed pens, pencils, a few highlighters, etc. into my luggage because they’re small and I had a bit of room. However, I did not bring notebooks with me.

I like to take a lot of notes, everything from lectures to reading texts and preparing my own notes for assignments. My foolproof strategy for never losing these notes and keeping them organized is to have one notebook for each class. I’m required to take four set classes this first semester, and I’m taking a German class on top of those. I need five notebooks for the semester.

I checked at the university shops: €3 per notebook. I checked at Kaufland, the closest grocery store: €3 per notebook. I checked at a couple other shops around town with stationary / paper products: €2-3 per notebook. Why is it so hard to find a cheap notebook around here!?

Finally, I asked this really nice German-American who was giving my group a tour of the university. He told me that he buys his office supplies at Müller. The next day I got my stuff together, headed to the bus (which I now have the skills to properly use!), and headed to Old Town which is the city center.

There is a Müller right by the harbour. On the top floor I found notebooks for a little under €1 each! Finally! There should have been some triumphant trumpet music playing at this very spectacular moment when I discovered affordable notebooks.

Anyway… I think I’m ready to officially start graduate school on Monday. It’s very strange to think that it’s finally happening. If five years ago someone had told me that I would go to graduate school abroad, I’d have thought they were straight-up mental. I’ve really come a long way from shy high school student to graduate student studying abroad for the third time.

Cheers!

Finally, I’m in Deutschland

Hallo! So… I’m in Germany. It’s weird to say it. I don’t know how to explain how it feels, but I can explain what I’ve been up to! Here are the highlights…

Sunday, September 27: Arrival in Munich. After dealing with the fact that my luggage was left behind in Chicago, I went straight away to see some friends that I haven’t seen since I left Northern Ireland last year!

This first day was very relaxing and just what I needed after three flights originating in St. Louis. I was beat.

Tuesday, September 29: I visited the city of Ulm! The Ulmer Münster (Ulm Minster) is the world’s tallest church at 161 meters (530 feet). I climbed up the church steeple to the very top. From there, I could see the whole city, and even the Alps in the distance.

Ulmer Münster
The front of the Ulmer Münster. It’s a bit dizzying even from the ground.
Up Ulm Minster
Almost to the top. It was very windy up there!
The blue blur on the horizon is actually the Alps!
View from the top. The blue blur on the horizon is actually the Alps!

If you’re not good with heights or tight spaces (narrow spiral staircases), I would not recommend climbing up to the top of this steeple. It was also very windy the day I went, so the top had incredible wind, which clearly made it difficult for me to control my hair as you can see in the photo.

Surrounding the church is a nice little shopping area with some shops and good eats. I definitely must go back, as I didn’t have quite enough time nor energy to explore everything.

Thursday, October 1: I spent some time staying at a friend’s apartment, which was good because I needed to sleep off jet lag and get adjusted. On Thursday, it was finally time for me to take the first half of my luggage, which arrived a few days after me, and head to Konstanz (Constance) where I will be studying.

I took the train to Friedrichshafen, which is on the Bodensee (Lake of Constance, but I will call it Bodensee from now on). This little town is just so cute. I really must visit it properly one day. From here, I took the ferry to Konstanz.

After I arrived on campus, I collected my keys, checked the flat for damage and then started to unpack the first bit of stuff. I will talk more about the uni and the city of Konstanz in other posts.

Sunday, October 4: On Sunday I made my second trip to Konstanz with my other suitcase. When I got to Friedrichshafen, it was clear at last, so I was able to properly see the Alps for the first time. THEY ARE HUGE.

First Alps

I can’t explain how big they really are in just words and photos. You would have to see them yourself, if you haven’t already. I have never seen such massive pieces of earth sticking out against the horizon. I’d also like to point out that these are the Swiss Alps on the other side of the lake.

Monday, October 5-Now: This past Monday I began orientation at Konstanz Universität (University of Constance). Right away they started explaining German bureaucracy. In the first day already I filled out all my forms to apply for my visa, also called a residence permit, and for other bureaucratic things.

Another feature of the orientation is being placed in a German-as-a-foreign-language course. I took a written test on the first day, then today I took another written test and oral test. I know that a few people who spoke zero German were told that they would have to sign up for the most basic German course at another language institute. I was very nervous and figured I would suffer the same fate. Fortunately, they gave me a class! I guess I have basic / can-understand-a-few-words-and-maybe-answer-in-crappy-sentences German. Yay! Now, I just have to figure out if this class conflicts with my Master’s courses.

The last major feature of orientation starts tomorrow for me. It’s the here’s-how-to-survive-in-the-university section of the orientation. I will also get to check out the library tomorrow, which is super exciting since the uni just opened a new library! If you know me, you may understand how much I like libraries.

Well anyway, I will be off. More details on my life in Germany coming soon.

Cheers!

The View One Year Ago

I remember standing alone of the edge of a cliff and thinking, “Wow… I’m really in Northern Ireland.” The realization crashed into me like the waves crashed into the rocks below me.

One year ago today, I stood with the other international students from Ulster University-Jordanstown. We lined up to take in our first view at Giant’s Causeway.

It was sunny, fairly warm despite the sea’s cool breeze. We walked down the path, poured off of it, and began exploring a bit. I remember standing alone of the edge of a cliff and thinking, “Wow… I’m really in Northern Ireland.” The realization crashed into me like the waves crashed into the rocks below me.

It’s always a shock to actively realize where I am. I first got that feeling on Cannon Hill in Staunton one night after watching a sunset. I felt so at home, but also startled, realizing I was in one of the most unique and charming little towns in the country.

The second time I got it was in Oaxaca, when I was in my host mom’s house listening to the musical language of Spanish, that I could suddenly not speak a word of, and feeling like I left my stomach on the plane. There, it was more of a terrifying realization. Thankfully, once I overcame that first night, I settled in well.

And the third time was Giant’s Causeway, a year ago today. That feeling continued through the day, and it recurred throughout the several months that I studied at Ulster Uni. Something about consciously thinking about my place in the world during those three months was incredibly powerful.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Thinking back, I wouldn’t change a thing about that gorgeous day in Northern Ireland. So here’s to another year of (mis)adventures, getting lost, and falling down on my rear end (which I did at Giant’s Causeway and most outdoor excursions, because I’m talented)!

Cheers!

The Shock before the Culture

The clouds were massive and building around us. With each new gust of wind, the plane shook violently. The flight attendant brought our snacks by, and I wondered how she managed to stay standing.

With each bump the flight took, I began to feel sicker and sicker. It was only about an hour long flight from Mexico City to Oaxaca, but it seemed to take ages with all this turbulence. At long last, we landed. I was never so happy to have my feet on the ground again.

We walked into the small airport where our host families were awaiting us. My roommate and I were introduced to our host mamá. La Señora gave us each a hug with accompanying besos (kisses) on our cheeks, which I was not ready for! As a side note, I think that any culture which uses kisses in greeting will be something that will startle me, no matter how many times I am told to accept it.

Our host mamá and her son had come to get us. The sun was setting on this new-to-me country as her son loaded our bags into the back of the truck. Then we were driven from the edge of the city to the home of Señora.

On the ride, our mamá asked us questions to which I couldn’t respond. All of a sudden, after several years of Spanish class, the foreign language I tried so hard to decode was entirely foreign to me again. I understood not a word and couldn’t formulate a proper sentence to answer. While my roommate chatted away in Spanish (she had been to Mexico before), I looked out the window.

I saw some people walking barefoot in the street, and little half-broken buildings. Meat was cooking outdoors at some restaurants. As we drove, I began to see familiar things: KFC, Sam’s Club, Office Depot. The longer we drove, the nicer the clothes of the people on the streets. I was acutely aware of how much more wealth could be seen the further we drove.

I remember thinking, “I am in Mexico. I am in Mexico. Oh, what kind of place did I come to? Everything is moving too fast…” And then we were home, at my host mamá‘s house at least. As we got out of the truck, one of the dogs came up, smelled me, and let me pet it. That was the only time one of those dogs was so nice to me.

My host family’s home was inside walls and solid gates. Their lawn was meticulously groomed and almost as green as the Emerald Isle. Their flowers were resplendent in their beauty, especially their Birds of Paradise which effortlessly flourished. But I didn’t see any of that. My eyes went to the sidewalk, to the smooth orange-red ceramic tiled floor, to the stairs as we followed our host mom… She showed us our room we would share, and its adjoining bathroom. We met another American living across the hall.

Then I excused myself. I went into our bathroom and sat down on the delightfully cool floor. “What was I thinking? What am I doing here?” And then I was sick. Mexico had spun me around and turned my world upsidedown in no time at all. And I hadn’t even started to experience the full extent of the culture.

After a while my roommate and I were called downstairs to dinner: cereal (dinners are small meals in Mexico). Then, we went to prepare for the next morning’s class. As I went to sleep in Mexico for the first time, I felt confused, uncomfortable, and unsure that I made the right decision in coming. The lesson here: give it time and experience the culture, not the window’s view.

Cheers!

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

I’ve now been in Northern Ireland for almost two weeks. Strange, right? It most definitely doesn’t feel that long. However, in this short amount of time I’ve managed to get around to quite a few places on the Emerald Isle.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find the weather quite favorable. I expected rain, but it was sunny and has been since we arrived. Each time I think that, I realize that surely at some point our luck will run out, and we will have miserable rain for weeks on end.

The second thing I noticed, before I even made it through customs, was the wind turbines. I cannot even begin to explain to you how happy I was to see wind power. The fact that I continually see this makes me ridiculously at peace.

After finding one of the staff members from the International Department and the other international students who came on my flight, we loaded up and went to campus only to find that we could not get into our rooms until 14:00, which was a problem as it was only 9:30. Instead, as a first activity, the other students from my flight and I went to the nearby seaside park.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
The sea is only a few minutes walk away from my campus.

That first day I was really just happy to get into my room and relax. The highlight of moving in was finding out that one of my flatmates happens to also love Rise Against.

The next several days brought about a pretty tedious orientation schedule, in which I learned that classes actually start a whole week later than I had previously thought. This was great news, because it means more time to explore!

Two days after arriving I joined some of the other international students in Belfast for the first time. On this trip, I met “Twin,” who is also a double-major in math and economics. Why is this worth mentioning? Because I have never met anyone who is also interested in both of these subjects and the type of work I’d like to do after college. It’s crazy to think that we found each other here even though she is from Minnesota and studies in Iowa (not so far from Missouri).

Anyway, we walked around Belfast for the evening, passing both the illuminated City Hall and Merchant Hotel, and dining at the Alley Cat which featured some interesting graffiti decor.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Belfast City Hall
Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Merchant Hotel
Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Inside the Alley Cat

The night went pretty well, but I was still clearly exhausted. Twin and I caught a taxi back to campus. I have to say the next night was much more enjoyable, as I met more international students who weren’t American, and I had some pretty good conversations with a few Germans who seemed baffled that I am a woman studying mathematics. I guess there are a lot of things I don’t notice while going to a women’s college….

Saturday was my first excursion out and about in Northern Ireland. All of the international students went to Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge. I definitely preferred Giant’s Causeway. The views were stunning from the start. Instead of trying to narrate the day, I’m just going to share some photos. Though, I must advise you to keep in mind that these photos absolutely do not do it justice!

Carrick-a-Rede was interesting, but I was unimpressed by the rope bridge. I thought it would be longer or higher up. It’s also gorgeous, but was less gorgeous than Giant’s Causeway in my honest opinion.

Thus concludes week one in Northern Ireland! Sunday night was a good dinner at SoZo’s. Monday was generally uneventful. But Tuesday, Tuesday it got real. I went up to Portrush with a friend. While he was surfing, I read The Essential Gandhi on the beach. Yeah, surfing is a big thing there, with wet suits of course. And yeah, I was reading Gandhi’s writings on a beach… Typical me.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Surfers under a clear sky at Portrush’s West Strand.

When the beach adventure concluded, we went to Dunluce Castle, a recommendation from a friend who previously did the same study abroad program.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

We took a bit of an adventure around the castle and the cove below. One thing that struck me as interesting is that people here are more likely to just jump a fence and do as they will, but leave no trash and take only photos with them. In the States I feel like people are more likely to trespass just to destroy things and break the law. It’s interesting to think about how Europeans seem to live in harmony with their surroundings whereas Americans just fence them off and destroy them despite the barriers in place.

As beautiful as the ruins, beaches, and general countryside are, the city of Belfast and its people are just as unique and vibrant! Friday night was Culture Night, and I must say I’ve never seen such a party. Everyone just seemed to be having a good time together as historic and modern Belfast became one.

In one area, I couldn’t help but to get way too excited about the graffiti art covering every surface. There were several local graffiti artists even creating work in the midst of the celebration.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

 

I had a great time running around the city with the other international students. One of the best gems we found that night was a bar filled to the brim with Guinness memorabilia. It was really something to look at.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Twin and I in the bar… or pub? I don’t know Irish lingo…

There were other events filling the evening including…

One thing I noted during Culture Night is that it was a pretty open event. People were drinking, dancing, and having a really good time as children simultaneously ran around. I don’t feel like I’ve even been at an event in the States where it was acceptable for adults to consume alcohol if children were present.

I find that I am enjoying this laid back Northern Irish culture much more than the uptight American culture. People here were also just drinking for leisure whereas at home, I feel like Americans drink to excess more often than not with the goal of getting drunk. There is definitely a drinking culture here, but I’m surprisingly enjoying being around it.

To round out my story of my first two weeks in Northern Ireland, I have to share what I did yesterday. I went with three other international students to hike Cave Hill. Situated at the base of Cave Hill is Belfast Castle. When you get to the top, you can see the city of Belfast to the right, up to Jordanstown (including my Uni) on the left, and the sea. On a clear day you can even see across the sea to Scotland, though we didn’t really have quite that much luck.

Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Belfast Castle
Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Twin and I at Belfast Castle, pre-hike.
Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
Finally made it to the top!
Two Weeks on the Emerald Isle
View of Belfast

So, in summary, I am still alive up here. I’ve been enjoying my free time these past two weeks, and earlier today I had my first class, in which I was the only female. Feels weird after going to a women’s college, but I’m dealing with it.

Cheers!