Friday, July 24, 2015

Musings from Museums

            Classes have officially ended. Final papers are due in about a week, everyone in the Oxford MOSAIC program for July has left, except me. I discussed staying extra days with my husband before I took off on this grand adventure. As he stated before I was even accepted into the program, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and he stood by that the entire time. He agreed that staying a few extra days would be a good idea so I could really ‘get’ London and Oxford.  I had originally wanted to take a trip to Paris, but after much research I found that it was out of the question. (I guess that means I’ll have to take another trip across the Atlantic some time.) I am a little lonely as my roommates have all left and my family is still at home, but I wouldn’t trade the extra days of travel and experience for anything.  I have seen things in these few days that others can only wish they had seen. I’ve taken a trip through centuries and never left the modern world.  Today was a grand example of experiencing the culture of another country.

            My day started out as a typical English day, rainy.  It’s ironic as the majority of the time I have been in this beautiful country it has hardly rained and the locals say it’s a bit of a heatwave. For those of us back in the Midwest of the United States, 70-75 is a cool front in July, which is what the Brits call a heatwave. Anyway, I gathered my backpack, mapped out my route and set off to the train station in Oxford.  I stopped at the local Sainsbury market first to grab some snacks to keep me going through the day. I made the mistake of not taking snacks yesterday and wolfed down ¼ of a Domino’s Pizza when I got back to the flat that night. Talk about heartburn!

            Back to the task at hand, today’s adventures.  After boarding the train to London, I finished reading the first Alice in Wonderland book, as Lewis Carroll wrote the books in Oxford and based them off of a little girl named Alice that lived with her father at Christ Church in Oxford, I found it fitting as part of my experience here. The book ended before the train ride so I moved on to Lion Among Men by Gregory McGuire (I also saw Wicked while I have been in London).  The ride ended and we all got off the train at Paddington Station. As I had mapped out my travels for the day I knew where to go on the Underground (or Tube) and headed in the direction of the line I needed to get on so I could transfer.  I am proud to say I can successfully navigate the London Underground with minimal mistakes and am very proud of that! Have you seen the map of the Underground? If not, take a look at it. 
Yeah, I mastered that bad boy. 

          I hopped off the Tube and headed to the British Library first thing.  I didn’t allow myself to be drawn in to all of the books, because I would never leave if I did that. I love books so much! I headed up the steps and found the area of the Library where they keep the treasures.  I was excited to see things like the Magna Carta (which was off display because of a special paid exhibit) and the Gutenberg Bible.  I was NOT disappointed.  Not only did I see wonders like the Gutenberg Bible (which is quite large and beautiful), I was able to see some of Da Vinci’s notebooks, original scores from Bach, Handel, Mozart, Chopin, Galileo’s Starry Messenger notebook, original writings of the Diamond, Heart and Lotus Sutras of Buddhism, original writings by Shakespeare, the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf, original lyrics from the Beatles, and the writing desk of Jane Austen just to name some highlights.  The room was dimly light with the focus of light being on the works and photography was not allowed.  The room was filled mostly with adults and it was very quiet.  Everyone was taking in the history before their eyes. We all had a common goal, to absorb and appreciate the works of art before us. Works of art that are written are no loss impressive than paintings, live music, or sculpture.  I fear that some of that is being lost and it was wonderful to be in the same room with others that appreciate the written word.

            After about an hour touring the treasures of the British Library I decided to change my original plan (another visit to the British Museum) and decided that going to the Tate Modern Art museum was more important.  I had just been humbled by the written word, so I decided it was time to be humbled by paintings, sculptures and photographs.  I am a fan of modern art, I can’t really explain why, but I enjoy looking at it much more than paintings by some of the greats like Monet.  While at Tate Modern I was able to feast my artistic eye on the likes of Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein and Salvador Dali.  As photography was allowed, I snapped a few photos of the famous artists works, but I also was moved by a few artists I had not heard of before, so I snapped a few photos of their work too.  I found Tate Modern to be the ideal modern art museum, very minimal, lots of white, black and glass, but I also found it a bit confusing.  There were no maps on the walls to help you figure out where you wanted to go, like most British museums I had visited so far.  They did have a paper map, for a pound. I didn’t have a pound and figured I’d wing it anyway.  I enjoyed the artwork I saw while at Tate Modern and I’m sure I would have enjoyed more, but I was beginning to get tired so I headed out in the rain once again.  I stopped at the front of Tate Modern and snapped a picture of the Thames River in the rain and the skyline.  I figured I needed at least one “typical” London picture. Ha ha ha! Back to the Tube station I went after the photo opportunity. I decided to deviate from my course one last time, as I had some time to kill before I could get on the train to head to Oxford. I decided to go to the Hard Rock Café in London. 
Marilyn Dyptich by Andy Warhol

The kind of weather I was expecting in London

            The Hard Rock Café London is the original Hard Rock Café.  It was founded by two Americans that wanted to create a place in London where people of all classes could dine together and enjoy their experience.  Eric Clapton enjoyed the Café so much he asked to have a plaque put above a specific table.  The owners/founders refused as it didn’t fit with their idea, but jokingly told Clapton he could donate something to the establishment.  He did! He donated a guitar, which is the beginning of the Hard Rock Café collection.  How do I know this? I read it while sitting at the bar drinking my wild berry smoothie in a collector Hurricane glass.  I didn’t take any pictures of the Café because it was very crowded and people were eating their dinner.  I did walk around and take in some of the amazing memorabilia that adorns the walls.  They had guitars from Eric Clapton, Billy Idol, and even Jimi Hendrix.  There were outfits or pieces of clothing worn by the likes of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Jim Morrison Bo Diddley and Mick Jagger.  It was awesome to see such a collection in such a small place.  If I had the extra money I would have toured the Vault, which is accessed through the Rock Shop across the street to see Kurt Cobain’s guitar and John Lennon’s glasses.  I guess that means another trip to England someday so I can check those out too!
Wildberry Smoothie from Hard Rock Cafe
            While on this adventure to England I have learned a great many things and appreciated a great many more.  One thing I have come to appreciate the most is my family.  They have unconditionally supported the idea and trip.  Anyone of my family members could have said no and I would have listened.  I would have felt guilty for a very long time for listening, but I would have listened.  Instead, I have been graced with a husband, son, parents, in-laws, and close friends who have fully thrown their support behind me.  I am doing my best to experience this land for its many levels of beauty and history, but not experience it through a lens.  I have taken pictures, but I’ve also walked around and appreciated the wonder and glory that is another culture.  I see far too many people rushing from object to object in museums taking pictures but not really experiencing the beauty of which they just took a picture.  I have seen numerous selfie sticks (the bane of my existence) because people are so self-involved that they cannot remove their face from the wonder of history, art, or science that they are supposed to be enjoying.  I am guilty of taking some selfie pictures while here, but as a rule, I don’t really like them.  If I take a picture of something it is because I want to remember it for the rest of my life.  If I took the picture, I know I was there, I don’t need the proof of my face to make it any more real.  I hope that people can learn to put their cameras away, if only for a few moments, and appreciate the wonder and joy of what they are experiencing.  I think that is one of my biggest take-aways from my travels, learning to really enjoy life and the wonders that it holds daily.  Nothing can compare to standing in the same room as an entire outfit worn by Jimi Hendrix, or seeing a painting by Picasso, or reading the handwritten lyrics of “Ticket to Ride” on the back of a birthday card.  Each of these people were inspired at one moment and created something beautiful that is now preserved for thousands of others to enjoy and gain inspiration.  Why waste that time finding the perfect angle for a selfie, why not spend that time in awe of the genius that was just witnessed, even if it was 100 years ago.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Solo with the Scots

Before leaving for England, a common “order” I received was to never travel alone. People told me it wouldn’t be safe—especially as a female—and that I should always travel with friends. I appreciated the several safety tips and the worry on my behalf, but I must say that looking back at my travels, I am glad I didn’t follow their advice.

I traveled solo several times over the course of my life abroad though it was mostly was short trips and transportations. I flew from St. Louis to Dallas to Heathrow on my own, a total of 15 hours. I flew from Dublin to London and then caught a train to Canterbury by myself. I took many solo cabs and even coaches to London, and numerous train rides. Returning to the States, I went from Heathrow to Chicago to St. Louis, a journey that—thanks to the time zones and layovers—lasted almost 24 hours it seemed. While these all helped build my confidence in independent traveling, there is a particular feat of solo traveling that I want to elaborate on, the trip that made me realize I could go anywhere in the world—alone.

When the school term ended, I had a little over a week of time to do whatever I wanted before I had to leave England. There were tons of places I wanted to go and not enough time to cram them all in, so I chose one that I knew I would regret if I didn’t go because I was so close to it for three months: Edinburgh, Scotland—a city I had always yearned to experience. However, none of my friends would be able to join me (some had already been and some had other plans) and after the initial disappointment and moments where I considered changing it to a closer location, I accepted the adventure and began to look forward to it. And so the journey began.

Overlooking Edinburgh from Edinburgh Castle!

Early on a Saturday morning, I caught a cab to Canterbury West train station, took it to St. Pancras, caught the tube to the airport train service, caught a half hour train ride, and arrived at Stansted Airport. I was nervous and thrilled. Mentally, Scotland seemed like a continent away since it was so far from “home home,” but while Scotland is technically another country, it was still not incredibly far from Canterbury. My travels probably took around five or so hours, from taxi to landing. I remember sitting on the floor of Stansted Airport, sipping a grande-soy-caramel-frappuccino-with-whip and watching the time boards. I just kept looking around at people, and while most of them were families and couples, I could spot the solos as well, the ones listening to their iPods with their backpacks tucked under their legs, or FaceTiming people on their phones, leaned back in their chairs as if they had been waiting a while. I tried to imagine where they were going, where they had been, why they were alone. I wondered what people thought when they saw me. I hoped they thought I was independent and courageous, about to embark on a grand adventure.

For the next five days, I wandered the streets of Edinburgh on my own. I survived the not-so-great hostel that was my only option on the first night, though my mother begged me to check into a Holiday Inn when I described it to her. I changed hostels on day two, since it had been my first choice but already full on night one. I had a very nice hostel-mate that I became friends with, and I didn’t see the others much. I went to breakfast, lunch, and dinner on my own. I went to the attractions of the city on my own, such as the Edinburgh Castle, Calton Hill, Queen Elizabeth’s Holyroodhouse Palace, parliament buildings, various parks and cathedrals, and so on. I even went on a day tour through the highlands of Scotland on my own, stuck on a bus for nine hours with no one I knew while going through Glen Coe to Ben Nevis to Loch Ness. I watched ecstatic rugby fans celebrate the Six Nations game between Ireland and Scotland that was happening in Edinburgh. I roamed the sites during the day, and more importantly, at night. I didn’t want to just see Edinburgh in light, but how it was in the dark, when everyone was home and the streets were quiet, the moon high and bright among the peaceful cobblestone walkways. And guess what? I never felt unsafe. I felt happy and alive because I didn’t let myself miss the opportunity to experience amazing things just because I was on my own.

Panorama from Calton Hill
Selfie life is for those who travel solo.
Scottish Highlands.
I think the reason I wanted to post this is because so many people miss out on opportunities because they don’t have a person to do it with them. Whether it is not going to Steak and Shake because friends are busy, or not flying to a different country for the same reasons, too many people hesitate to be alone. And for the latter experience mostly, they use the excuse that it is unsafe. I, personally, came to dislike that excuse. I understand that it is less safe for women to travel alone than men. I understand that there are a lot of bad people in the world, and that I should be careful. But that should not hinder my life. I don’t want to miss things because there is bad in the world. There are mean people in my hometown that I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. There are just as many dangers on domestic land as there are abroad—alone or not alone. I honestly felt more unsettled walking the streets of Chicago in broad daylight than I did Edinburgh, London, Canterbury, Amsterdam, and Paris at night combined. Fear of the unknown should not be an excuse.

Glen Coe
Looking for Nessie!
What I am trying to say is this: be safe, be alert, but don’t be afraid. Research where you’re going, how you’re getting there, what crime rates are and where most crimes occur, places to go/not to go (sites like TripAdvisor and other google searches or reviews of attractions often say whether or not it’s a good idea to go somewhere at night, etc.). If you’re staying in a hostel, look carefully at the reviews to see what others had to say about security. Don’t walk around looking lost and vulnerable. Don’t walk in unlit areas if you’re not familiar with your surroundings. Don’t give information about yourself to strangers or go places alone with them. These are all basic, common sense tips for everyone—not just women travelling alone—and there are so many more. I think of all of these and know that I never put myself in an uncomfortable position. I was confident in what I was doing and who I was as a traveler and I never let it show when I wasn’t. That confidence, my choice to ignore the overused don’t-travel-alone-especially-if-you’re-female warning, and my amazing experience in Scotland, solidified what I want future study abroad goers to know. There are a lot of opportunities out there in the world, and you’re not always going to have someone to experience them with you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every leap you want to. It just means you have to have a little more faith in yourself to jump.
A night at the castle.

Best wishes, fellow travelers. 


Monday, July 20, 2015

Closing Thoughts

Okay, I’ll share a few thoughts, but you’re being warned. This is only a fraction of what I’m taking away from my time spent in Paris. So here it goes…
First. The people. My Columbia buddies (and “honorary CC student”) Paige, Lauren, and Gena have made this trip what it was. Absolutely incredible. We shared so many laughs…from protecting one another from cute pick pocketers (that’s how they getcha), to sharing space with oddballs on the metro, to navigating Parisian streets, to many more moments worthy of giggles. I laugh just thinking about it. Every moment with these ladies was laced with wit, humor, and light heartedness. Evening after evening, we opened up to each other with vulnerability, depth, and honesty. We accept each other for who we are and where we’re at…mistakes, quirks, and all. They taught me how to enjoy travel with others (I have to admit, I’m a major fan of solo travel.)
It seems as if God’s timing and a little bit of fairy dust allowed me to see some friends from my past as well! I met Jordyn for lunch (an Atlanta friend who grew up with me in middle school and high school). I met Jazmine (another Atlanta friend who went through the rigorous IB program with me at NAHS). I met Marisa (a close friend who has kept in remarkably good touch with me from middle school to now). These moments were so sweet!
Second. The place. PARIS! The first few days were rough, I’ll be honest. I smelled a lot of pee and interacted with a lot of strange characters. But then the girls and I went down to the Seine for a sunset riverboat cruise with the group and things just became magical. I really think there’s something special in the Seine water because after that cruise, the sky was brighter. The people were friendlier. Everything was just romanticized. Paris became a wonderful place to explore (buying good walking shoes also helped…my Old Navy flip flops were quickly tossed). We took the Metro everywhere which, again, gave us plenty of opportunities to laugh at ourselves and at others. More importantly, though, there became this exciting little thrill from rising up out of the underground tunnel and into pockets of Paris that were so beautifully diverse. Every arrondissement has a different culture…some are uppity and fancy, some are business-focused, some host the homes of immigrant families, and the list goes on. Each is special. Each is full of fun. Paris is not just a place; it has a spirit…a character that took time for me to appreciate, but now holds a very special place in my heart.
I think my last night in Paris wraps up my blog post well. My friends and I went to the Eiffel Tower to watch the fireworks show for Bastille Day and it was an incredible experience. First of all, there was minimal public rowdiness. I don’t think there’s one professional baseball game I’ve gone to without obnoxiously loud, drunk men or women stumbling with their clothes falling off. But in Paris, the people are just classy and respectful in public spaces. I totally get that this is just my experience. You might have experienced another side to Bastille Day. But, for me, it was spectacular. Another note…Bastille Day celebrates French independence but the 30 minute long fireworks show expressed appreciation and respect with a diverse arrangement of songs. You don’t find that in America. France seems to, without generalizing, nod to multiple major demographics of the country. And it gave me chills. How uniting! The show itself is amazing. The fireworks came out of the Eiffel Tower, which I wasn’t expecting. I wanted to cry the whole time from sitting in front of this show and reflecting on my amazing summer.
This summer opened me to new parts of my inner being. It also opened me to new parts of humanity and culture. I wouldn’t change anything about it – if you’re lucky enough to visit Paris, let me know! I’d love to share more practical tips and tricks I learned while navigating. Thanks for following my thoughts and reflections!
Take care,

Monday, July 13, 2015

Tennis is life, at least at Wimbledon

                Do you know where you were on July 11, 2015? It may not seem like an important date to many people, but for this woman it was by far one of the greatest days of my life. 
                When I was accepted into the Columbia College Study Abroad program for the 3 week session in Oxford, England I was beside myself with joy for many reasons.  One of those reasons was the possible opportunity to attend the Wimbledon championships.  I have adored the sport of tennis since I started playing my freshman year of high school.  I have followed various athletes and really disliked others.  One of my life goals is to attend all four grand slam tournaments.  For those of you who do not follow tennis, the four grand slam tournaments are the Australian Open (February), Roland Garros/French Open (June), Wimbledon (Late June & Early July), and the U.S. Open (Late August/Early September).  It felt like a pipe dream, as life was not being very conducive to the travel required to achieve that dream.
                On July 11, 2015, I was able to check attending Wimbledon off that list.  A fellow classmate that also enjoys tennis accompanied me to the All England Lawn Tennis Club where Wimbledon takes place.  We were given directions by both a member of the staff at the OSAP (Oxford Study Abroad Program) office and a very helpful gentleman at the train station.  With their help we were able to navigate the Underground system in London (which is no easy feat when you look at a map of the Tube system) and we arrived safely in Wimbledon.  We trekked down the street toward the grounds, just to catch a glimpse of the grounds.  We figured there would be no queue (line in England) for grounds tickets and had resigned ourselves to sitting in a pub to watch the women’s final match.  The first security guard we spoke to assured us there was no queue for grounds tickets but advised us to continue toward the grounds to experience Wimbledon Village.  We followed his suggestion and continued down the street.  We came upon another security guard about a block or two away that asked us if we wanted to join the queue. We were beside ourselves! We had just been told there was no queue. We gladly followed his direction toward the grounds.  We received queue tickets that state there is no guarantee we will be able to get on the grounds and we passed through security where I had a pleasant conversation with the gentleman searching my bag about selfie sticks (they are all over the place here, but banned in Wimbledon).  We briskly walked the designated path to the grounds and for £15 ($23) we were able to access the grounds at Wimbledon! We were one step closer to fulfilling a dream.
                Upon entering the grounds at Wimbledon you are exposed to a wide variety of individuals.  Some have dressed very casually for their day of sun and tennis, others look as if they are going to church right after watching a match.  There were hats galore, though few baseball caps as they are frowned upon in England.  We walked around in a daze for a few minutes as we couldn’t believe we had made it onto the grounds.  Now, being on the grounds does not mean you will get to see a match in person, but there is a grass covered hill on the grounds that you can access with your grounds ticket.  This hill faces a jumbo-ton type screen where you can watch the matches in real-time.  My classmate and I decided to visit the souvenir shop first. I think we were still in a bit of disbelieve of our luck being on the grounds.  Anyway, we found some souvenirs for ourselves and a few others we know that appreciate tennis as much as we do.  After shopping I had her take my picture in front of the men’s draw board showing the progress of the tournament so far.  I had hoped the women’s draw would be included in the picture, but it’s okay that it wasn’t, I prefer watching men’s tennis more.
             After the brief photo opportunity we wandered around the grounds.  There are practice courts that are available for the public to see.  One of the men’s double teams was practicing, so we watched for a few minutes.  A little bit after walking away we noticed there was a crowd gathering at the intersection of the walkway by a practice court.  We decided to be nosy Americans and check it out.  Being such a short person, seeing things over a crowd is very difficult, however I was able to see what the crowd was about when there was a brief parting of some of the crowd.  Novak Djokovic was practicing! I almost lost my cool! I was so excited! We took quick pictures and moved along so others could see him practice also.  

             We made our way to the lawn and found there was a section of bleachers at the top of the hill.  We quickly procured some seats (with backs) and prepared to watch the women’s final between Serena Williams and Garbine Muguruza.  It was a great match! As tennis players both my classmate and I were critiquing the players in regard to both good and bad points.  When the crowd applauded, we were part of that.  When the crowd sighed or ohhed or ahhed, we were part of that.  
               It was great to be part of such a momentous day!  Serena won, making this her 6th Wimbledon championship, but Garbine put up one heck of a fight!  We prepared to exit the facilities only to discover that the winner of the final is expected to come out on the balcony at the Club and show their trophy to the crowd.  We patiently waited in the crowd for Serena to make her appearance.
                While we were waiting a lady slightly behind us on our left talked about wanting to see Drake, the singer who is currently in a relationship with Serena and there to support her bid at Wimbledon.  She went on about wanting to see him as opposed to seeing Serena for 3-5 minutes.  It was interesting hearing an English woman be so open about her feelings toward Drake.  She got her wish, Drake walked right in front of her.  She was able to reach out and touch him.  He touched her upper arm and said something along the lines of “Sorry, baby,” like it was his fault she touched him. He was about two feet behind me and had no security detail with him, like you would see in America. 
                Not too long after the Drake encounter, Serena walked out on the balcony and showed her trophy to the crowd. It was so cool to be a part of the crowd.  There is even a picture of her with her back to the crowd holding the trophy. I’m a part of that crowd! You can’t really see me, but I’m there.  After she exited the balcony, we decided it was time to leave the All England Lawn Tennis Club and head back to Oxford.  We navigated the Underground again, took some pictures in Paddington Station and headed for our train.
                As I told my husband and many friends, with the exception of the day I married him, gave birth to our son, and purchased our home, this was one of the best days of my life.  I do not think it will be topped anytime soon.  It’s two days later and it still doesn’t seem real!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Kyoto in Style


(left to right) Darby, Amanda and I suited up to stroll around Kyoto!
Not every town is like Kyoto in the fact that on any given day, it is normal to walk around in yukata. Of course, with all magic comes a price. It was a little expensive, but I bought mine with the obi, and geta and had my hair done for about 116,000 yen (which comes up to just at 116 US dollars). What is a geta and obi? Geta are the tradition flat wooden shoes that have cloth to throng your big toe and second toe. So basically older looking flipflops that may hurt after a while. On the other hand, an Obi is is the sash that ties around the waist to keep the yukata and kimono closed in a beautiful way. 

Now, if you're somewhat savvy to the Japanese clothing, you may wonder, what's the difference between a yukata and a kimono? Well here it is simply, the yukata is a summer kimono. It has shorter sleeves and it is made of lighter material so you don't die of heat stroke. 

Yukata in Burger King? 
 For lunch, half of us went to sushi and the other half came to the ironic place of Burger King. While everyone chowed down, I couldn't help but chuckle at all the traditional Japanese clothing in an American fast food restaurant.

"Makin' my way downtown, walking slow (because the yukata/geta combo only allows small steps) faces past and I'm Kiyomizu dera bound!"
 Okay, so the "thousand mile" song by Vanessa Carlton song doesn't work too well with yukata, but seeing all the yukata in a row was really pretty! Funny enough, some Japanese people thought we were working while on our stroll. Occasionally, kimono shops will hire gaijin (foreigners) to wear thier products to make Kyoto seem better for tourism.

Rika Sensei told me that when a temple's outer wall has white lines, it signifies that that temple is a royal temple. Every so often the royal family will drop into that temple and either rest or pray there. 

Here, you can see all the wishes written on the monkies!
Walking up the street towards our main destination were a bunch of these hanging stuff animal looking things. Not knowing the traditions, I asked Rika sensei what they were. Apparently the stuffed animals are monkeys, who greatly resemble humans. Always wanting many things and having many desires. So, to attain a single wish you need to do some thinking on what you truly need. This is because in order to have a wish fulfilled, you first need to give up a desire. The hanging monkey will keep your desire protected and this will help make your wish come true.

Pausing for a moment, Darby and Amanda pose for a photo along the main road to our final destination.  

Ah, finally made it to our destination! Kiyomizu dera!  Kiyomizu-dera is a historic temple that was established in 778, even before Kyoto became the capital of Japan. Since its foundation, the temple has burned down many times. Most of the current buildings were rebuilt by the third Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu in the early Edo period (1631 to 1633). 

Jo's attempt at lifting the heaviest weight (to no avail)
Morris Sensei + Stranger = still nothing
高 (kou)'s attempt at lifting the second heaviest weight.

   Now, you might be wondering as to what my fellow classmates, strangers and teacher are doing. To the right there are iron shoes, the left (14 kg = 30lbs) the Shoshakujo staff and at the center (90 kgs = 198 lbs) Tetsushakujo staff. I'm not sure if there is a purpose to it all other than testing your strength! However, it was worth the laugh to see everyone struggle. 

I just wanted to be like Thor...
There is temple within the Kiyomizu dera that is a love temple. Apparently, if you shake this hammer you'll get luck in love. Unfortunately for me, I just wanted to look more like Thor son of Odin from the Marvel comics.
A pretty (probably diseased) plant that I found. It looks like sun rays are reflecting off the surface of the plant, but those are just spots. I was rather fascinated by it! 
Going down the stairs in geta and yukata was a lot harder than anticipated! 

 I think at the end of the day, the part that made everything so fun was that I got to experience wearing traditional Japanese clothing with my friends. We all struggled a bit at first, adjusting to taking smaller steps, and our feet were tired by the end, but we all admitted we had a lot of fun! That and I got Matcha (green tea) ice cream, so all is well that ends well.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Living in the Moment

Italy has officially left me absolutely speechless!  Everything from seeing the Sistine Chapel, going inside the Colosseum, going up Mount Etna, visiting Pompeii, and so much more was breathtaking and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.  But, before I get caught up reminiscing about my experience in Italy, I will tell you a little bit about myself.  My name is Abbie O’Brien and I will be starting my junior year at Columbia College this fall.  I have always seen study abroad as an amazing opportunity and visiting Europe has always been a dream of mine!  However, since I had never been out of the country I was nervous to spend an extended period of time away from home.  I thought that study abroad wasn’t an option for me because of this fear and also financially until I heard about the short term study tours that Columbia College offers!  This study tour was affordable, roughly ten days long, and still included a trip packed with the rich history, culture, art, and so much more of the place(s) you visit.  I was so excited about this perfect option for a student like myself and signed up for the Rome and Sicily study tour!  I couldn’t have asked for a better fit regarding finances, duration, and location of this tour!

Now, enough about myself, let’s talk about Italy!  If I shared all the things I learned about the places we visited this blog would turn into a novel, but I’ll do my best to share about my favorite stop, the Sistine Chapel.  Walking into the Sistine Chapel was incredible.  Being able to see Michelangelo’s amazing works was an absolute privilege.  The Last Judgment painted across an entire wall was not just beautiful and a masterpiece but it evoked emotion as everyone stood in the quiet packed chapel.  As I looked around the room I noticed that over half of the people had their necks craned back, taking in arguably Michelangelo’s most impressive and difficult work covering the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  Michelangelo captured the book of Genesis in incredible detail and beauty on this ceiling.   I was immediately in awe of the amazing art before me. 

I think a big reason I was able to really appreciate this amazing place was because the rules took away the distraction that cameras and talking can cause.  Since pictures were strongly prohibited and talking discouraged, we were all forced to be in the moment.  So instead of experiencing the Sistine Chapel from behind the lens of my camera I was able to experience it to its fullest by giving it my entire attention.  Simply standing in the chapel was almost an emotional experience in itself.  I think stepping back to enjoy each place you visit is an important thing to do during travel or any study abroad program in general.  It is not always easy to set aside your camera but in the end it is more important to focus on experiencing the place at hand.  That would be one piece of advice I have for anyone in or considering any study abroad program; don’t be afraid to set your camera down for a moment to take in your surroundings. 

I hope one day you take some time to visit Italy and see the wonderful and beautiful art, architecture, history, culture, and views it has to offer!

P.S. I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the pizza and gelato is, so you will absolutely have to try that for yourself when you visit Italy!! 
-Abbie O’Brien

The Colosseum
Vatican City


Gelato with Lauren
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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Japanese vs American Etiquette

Salt Takoyaki (Fried Octopus balls) and Shouyo Ramen
Takoyaki, octopus fried in a batter that gives the food a round shape. Can come in many flavors, and many Japanese make Takoyaki machines (like Americans waffle makers) in their house. Shouyu Ramen is soy-based broth, and instant Ramen does not compare to the glory that is Japanese Ramen. 

Look mom, I can now loudly slurp my soup, hold my dishes when eating and greet with gestures in two languages!

   When two cultures collide, especially etiquette, it can be strange yet interesting. Many times I have bowed in greeting to my Japanese friends but also shot up my hand in a wave. It usually ends in an off-beat salute, but, I my friends usually get that I am attempting to greet them. As for slurping and picking up dishes, it actually a Japanese cultural thing. To show that soup / noodle dishes are delicious, one must slurp rather loudly. Being the American I am, my mother always scolded me when I slurped due to it being bad manners in America. So, trying to catch on to Japanese customs and I have been practicing slurping, a harder task than I had previously imagined! The same goes for hands at least touching the dishes you’re eating from, a daily Japanese custom. While it is considered polite in Japan, it begs the question, “when was the last time you ate?” at my home in America. So, to urge my hand to be on the table was another task I was not expecting to be difficult in Japan. Here, I thought learning the Japanese Language would be the hardest task!

Soba Noodles with Shiitake mushroom
A type of noodle soup that has thick broth (almost gelatin like) and thick noodles. Can also be cold served cold.  Excellent for cold weather! 

   While my Japanese friends cannot tutor me in how to slurp, bow without throwing my hand out there, or holding my dishes, they are kind enough to continuously help me with Japanese. Here at the University of Shiga Prefecture (USP) in the Communications department, everyone is friendly and helps whenever requested. Whether it be the correct Kanji order, or sitting with me for ten minutes pronouncing a seemingly silent “n” I was astounded at how kind the people are here. While opening the door for someone is not a “norm” here, people go out of their way to treat you kindly. For example, I was taking on my largest task in Japanese (as of yet) and writing a journal entry. When my friends Chisato and Yumeno saw I was struggling, they looked over it for me and explained how some sentences would sound more natural, and how to better phrase things. I took up a good hour of their time, but they weren’t impatient with me at all.

At an earlier welcome party, see a familiar face? Why It's Mineka! She studied at CC in 2014.

  That is another thing I have enjoyed about this exchange program; seeing friends that I met in America in their home prefecture.  Madoka, Chisato, Haruna and Yusuke, previous Columbia College (CC) exchange students came home this semester! I just about tackled Madoka when I first saw her again, and I was able to go to Nagoya with her. Hanging out and having the complete reverse situation is so very eye opening. Seeing how hard it must have been for them to come to America, and realizing how hard they studied really made me appreciate them. When I see any exchange student at CC again, I will definitely go more so out of my way to help them, like everyone here has helped me.

My friend Momo being gracious and helping me with my Japanese homework!

  I’ll be going to Kyoto on a field trip this Friday, so I will update you all with plenty of photos of the trip!

-Gabriel (Gabby) Lewis 

Friday, July 3, 2015

Musings from airports

Hello again! I have taken to writing a physical journal on this trip so I can document as much as possible while away from my loved ones.  I hope these typed journal entries are enjoyable and promote you to think about traveling in the future.  Here is my first journal entry. Thanks for reading!

July 1, 2015
                The website said to show up 2 hours early for International flights. Too bad I showed up, as requested.  I was one of two people at the airport for about 30-45 minutes.  Oh well, I read and it gave time for my nerves to calm.  I was afraid my check baggage would weigh too much, but thankfully it was half the maximum requirement! Woo hoo! While waiting in the TSA line I had a conversation with a guy who works with the UN. He was headed to Siberia to watch the countries version of Tribal Olympics.  I thought my day was going to be long. This poor guy is traveling across like 12 time zones. Oh my!
                I remember why flying freaks me out. It’s like riding a roller coaster that is thousands of miles above ground.
                I safely landed at Chicago O’Hare and began my 4 hour layover.  Thankfully they have fairly easy to understand signs, lots of ways to get updates on your flight and places to get some grub. I found a market that sells fresh fruits and veggies so I have a little food to keep me full without eating a bunch of junk fast food. 
                While in Chicago I was taken under the wing of a couple flying back home to North Carolina after a U2 concert.  The wife and I talked quite a bit. She had an accent from NY. It was fun to listen to her. The couple are retired teachers! They watched my luggage when I had to go to the bathroom. I am so thankful for that alone, as I had to go to the bathroom multiple times while we waited.  Speaking of waiting, airports will teach you patience.  According to the constant updates from American Airlines, our flight appeared to be on schedule.  It wasn’t.  I am thankful we weren’t on our original plane as it was grounded for mechanical problems.  I’ll spend time chatting up an awesome older, retired couple over getting on a broken plane! The additional time to get a working plane eats into my layover before London.  That’s okay as long as I can walk for a little bit, go to the bathroom and make my flight.
                While in Chicago I had a few interesting thoughts.
1.       It is amazing how many people take an airplane to a destination only to part ways, join others and continue on their journey.  You never really know another person’s story or life.  You should always be kind. You never know how someone is feeling, you are a spectator in a moment of their life, make the most of it.
2.       Sitting hurts after a while. Period.
3.       There are still nice people in the world.  You’d be amazed how many of them are waiting for their plane to show up.
4.       Kids can be entertained by the simplest things, like simply seeing an airplane through a window.
5.       Four hours of sleep isn’t nearly enough when you’re traveling all day, internationally.
6.       Having my feet touch “ground” between the legs of the flight helped me cope with the distance, both from friends and family AND my body and the ground while on the plane.

I hope I am able to sleep some on the way to London from Raleigh. I am so very tired.

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