Grayer on the Other Side

A tour of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) on the border between North and South Korea was fitting for Saturday’s dreary weather. This area is designated as part of neither country, where representatives of each can discuss matters in peace. Most of the tour was based around the solemnness of the separation and the fervent hopes for reunification. I was surprised to learn that South Koreans are relatively unanimous on their desire for unification with North Korea. From asking around, most people are in favor even if they don’t believe that either nation is ready.

This supposed lack of readiness is most evidenced to me by each side’s slander of the opposite. During the tour, we descended into an underground tunnel supposedly built by North Korea with intentions to invade South Korea post peace treaty. The tour guide told us that tourists in North Korea are told that this tunnel was built by Americans as a tourist magnet and that North Korea never tried to invade after the Korean war. Similarly, we were told that the prosperous-looking North Korean city visible from the observatory deck is propagandistic and fake. There is no way to know the truth! As an American, I’m obviously inclined to side with South Korea, but the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

These morning activities made the night’s visit to Hangang Park for a light show and street performers especially poignant. As we watched children dancing to K-Pop together and water spouting off Banpo Bridge lit up in rainbow lights, I couldn’t help but recall the stories of families permanently separated by some members having the opportunity to be refugees and others not. There likely was someone in the park who will never see his mom again whose mom will never see anything like this. I sincerely hope that the other side is not as gray as this side makes it seem, because this side seems like a rainbow to me.

Fishy Business

“Hi! Hello! Sashimi? Crab? Yummy fresh!”

Evidently, the smell of foreigners is as strong to fish venders as the Noryangjin Fish Market is to us, as all of them threw out what English they knew in attempts to corral us to their stands. Some even grabbed our arms and dragged us over.

At each stand, live seafood swam and crawled in tanks. There were crabs, squid, octopus, shrimp, prawns, snapper, flounder and more in every thinkable size. I got to use my little bit of Korean to haggle the prices down, asking “how much for the little one?” and repeatedly saying “expensive.” My friends and I bought 2 crabs, several octopus, some shrimp, and a red snapper, all of which were killed right before our eyes. It was unsettling, but it doesn’t get fresher than that!

From there, restaurant workers were similarly aggressive; they took our black bags of just-dead sea creatures out of our hands and led us to their restaurant where they prepared them. They grilled the snapper, steamed the crab and shrimp, and served the octopus raw. This was the first time I’d had raw octopus. For at least half an hour after it was served to us, the tentacles still squirmed in the dish, and they suctioned to our tongues when we ate them. Definitely worth trying! Everything else was delicious, not needing any sauces because the freshness stood for itself.

Even with my broken Korean bargaining, it was an expensive meal, but well worth it! I guess Koreans know just as well as Americans that sometimes you have to pay to be fresh.

Your English is Better Than My Korean

I can now write like a kindergartener in Korean! I wrote an essay in class that said, “Hi. This person is an American Singer. His name is Jason Derulo. Jason is a handsome man. I’m a Jason Derulo fan.”

Once while I was out this week, I was studying my Korean flash cards while waiting on a friend, and a Korean girl read them over my shoulder and laughed (playfully, not condescendingly). I suppose it’s pretty silly to see someone studying words like “dog” and “cat” in the language spoken in the country in which you are located.

My guesstimate would be that about 10% of Seoul residents speak fluent English, and 50% know enough to interact with tourists in the context of their trade.

Those who do speak English well often go above and beyond foreigners. In Hongdae this week, a woman saw my friends and I struggling with a map (looking for the sheep cafe of which we knew the address), and she went out of her way to escort us all the way there.

Later this week, a non-international student in my math class befriended me by offering to give me some study materials. When he emailed them to me, he said “Please understand me about speaking and writing english not well. Today’s talk is my first conversation with foreigner. So I was nervous in talking with you, but I want to be your friend.” First of all, this was precious. Secondly, his English is solid enough to take Numerical Analysis- I would consider that highly proficient.

While I can appreciate that it’s convenient that I speak English since it’s such a universal language, it’s disappointing to not relate to the struggles of others. People around me are taking difficult courses in their second language, and I have no idea what that’s like. It makes me want to live in a non-English-speaking country long enough to use the native language more than English.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough time here to get to the point where communication in Korean is at all smooth, and for the sake of time, Koreans often revert to English for me. That said, I can order food now without pointing and write about Jason Derulo, so I’ll take it!

The One Where Madrid is Home

It’s crazy how fast time flies by here, even though days in Madrid are ridiculously long. It’s definitely a good thing though, because there’s always so much I want to do!

Never really thought I’d say this, but I love my classes here. They’re a lot smaller than what I’m used to, as my classes here range from 5 to 10 students. I didn’t know how to feel about that at first, but it makes for a lot more one on one time. The USAC staff and professors here are fabulous and I know they always have my back.

Even though I usually have to spend some time doing homework and studying every day, the true learning is outside the classroom. I’ve learned more Spanish speaking to my host family than I have through worksheets. There’s no better way to learn a language and a city than by getting lost in it (which I have done a few times).

This past weekend I managed to squeeze two other cities in, and I’m so glad I did. Friday I went on a “field trip” with my program and a majority of other students to Segovia. What a beautiful city. Our tour guide told us that Alcanzar, the castle featured below, was the inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle, but I’m pretty sure that’s said about every castle.

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My second city I traveled to was Valencia. My first train ride! I love Valencia because it has the feel of a big city but without being as crowded as Madrid. I spent a lot of time at the beach as well as La Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias (The City of Arts and Sciences). We also went to the aquarium there, which is the largest aquarium in Europe!

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Madrid feels like home now. I’ve gotten used to all the public transportation, but I still feel like I see something new each day. I guess that’s part of the excitement of living in a big city!

Discovering Holland

All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. All tulips are flowers, but not all flowers are tulips. And Holland is in the Netherlands, but not all of the Netherlands is in Holland. So why does it seem as if 99% of the world [wrongly] refers to the entire 12 provinces of this country by the name of only 2 of these provinces?

The answer stems back to the 1600s, or this Dutch Golden Age, when the country became a wealthy capital of trade, science, military, and artistic power. It was the very two provinces of Holland that boasted the most economic and maritime prowess, so the entire country took on the name of its region as a sort of international branding tactic.

This past Saturday was “Discover Holland Day”, so I, with some fellow Gators and other UU Summer School students, set out on an expedition through the Dutch countryside to see all the stereotypical splendor of Holland ourselves.

Kinderdijk

Our first stop was Kinderdijk, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for a collection of 19 windmills.  What’s a trip to Holland without seeing some windmills, clogs, and tulips?  Unfortunately, no tulips were in bloom, but we had the first two bases covered.  Most of Holland is situated 7 meters below sea level, so ever since the 16th century, windmills, dykes, and pumping stations have been built for flood control.  Now, they are simply national icons.  After walking around on the damp, marshy ground for an hour, I now understand the utility of wooden clogs: protection.  Some farmers in rural Holland still wear them.

Now THIS is Holland. Lowlands and marshland, not too unfamiliar for these Floridians

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zouterwoude/Kaasboerderij Van Veen

After hopping back in the bus for an hour, we arrived in the village of Zouterwoude, where we visited the Dairy farm of Karin and Sjaak Van Veen.  Sjaak is a third-generation farmer on this land, though the entire operation has been around for centuries.  Along with his wife, Sjaak led us on a full-fledged tour of the cheese-making process.

Step 1: Nothing like the smell of cow before tasting some fresh cheese.  But hey, at least it’s fresh.  I still am in shock at how massive these cattle were, even the baby calves.  But don’t let their mellow demeanor fool you; these cows require a lot of TLC. Sjaak had just assisted a laboring cow earlier that morning, and we had the privilege of seeing a baby calf ours after it was born.

Goud-a cheese comes from happy cows!

Goud-a cheese comes from happy cows!

Step 2: Okay, I will admit, I am not the biggest cheese lover.  I know, blasphemy in the Netherlands, but that did not stop me from sampling some fresh from the source. If I’m going to enjoy cheese, I’d may as well enjoy the cream of the crop,  (<–) punny no? We sampled several kinds, from a plain variety to one with fenugreek.  My favorite was the cheese with stinging nettle, garlic, and onion.  “Stinging nettle” sounds questionable, but anything with garlic and onion never disappoints. Karin Van Veen led us through all steps of production, from preparing the culture, to separating curds and whey, to shaping, to aging.  Cheese here is classified based on maturity – i.e. an “immature” cheese is young, about 12 weeks, and mild in flavor.  Their most mature cheese is a 6-year-old variety – with the sharpness of a knife, I bet. Though it’s somewhat unsettling to think about where all the flavor comes from, Karin assured us that the government health department inspects a culture of their cheese on a weekly basis to check for normal pH balance, bacteria, and contaminant levels. We then got to walk through a giant maze/vault of cheese wheels in every size and age imaginable.

These wheels keep on turning

When wheels get boring, there are always tulips.

Cheese, please

Gouda

Last stop was the town of Gouda, pronounced How-da with a throaty “H”.  Yes, us foreigners should be ashamed at unabashedly pronouncing it as we do, though I admittedly will revert back to those American ways when I return to the States. But, Gouda was “How-da” for the day, and what a quaint little town it was!  It reminded me a lot like Utrecht, except instead of flags adorning the cables which hung over the streets, there were giant cheese wheels hanging over my head.  We strolled around the outdoor market for a bit, and then went on the hunt for ice cream (which is always an easy hunt), before following it up with some free stroopwafels.  Oh, stroopwaffels, how you have my heart!  A street vendor will come out with a fresh batch and the tray will be wiped within seconds.  They’re that good. Think warm, buttery waffle cones sandwiching sticky, sweet caramel.  A great follow-up to ice cream, and sweet way to end the day.

 

Stroopwafels plus these girls, which is sweeter?

Stroopwafels or these girls, which is sweeter?

Stadhuis, or Town Hall, dating back to 1450.  And we thought this was a Cathedral!

Stadhuis, or Town Hall, dating back to 1450. And we thought this was a Cathedral!

 Until next time,

RJR

 *P.S.: Despite eating cheese and being in Gouda, I did not eat any Gouda cheese today!

Stateside Concerns

My mom insists that the water in the fridge is the same water I grew up drinking. The same water that I’ve been drinking for 21 years. But it tastes different. It tastes like chemicals and it’s too cold, but it’s free so I shouldn’t be complaining, I guess.

But that’s not the only thing: The portions here are too big and everything tastes like it came from a box. Everyone drives everywhere and walking anywhere is completely unfeasible. People scream on the phone and bask in too-cold air conditioning. Everything is too loud, too big, too bright.

But yesterday I got a root beer float. I got mashed potatoes and gravy and then I got a cheesecake (a real cheesecake, not the sad little pastries they try to make pass as cheesecake in Brussels). I got a new car. And these things make it worth it to be back. Still, I’ve come to realize, in light of the fact that this is my last post (something that has inspired much introspection), that I was wrong about something very important.

In one of my earlier posts, I mused about the beauty of Brussels (something I never did get used to) and my new life there. I claimed that everywhere is home. But I was wrong. When I wrote that, a little over a month ago, I didn’t really understand the concept of home. Now that I’m older and wiser (or at least older), I understand a little more. I understand that a place isn’t home. It can be, of course, but it isn’t the place, or even the people, that makes a place home. It’s us.

I made the mistake, in June, of attributing my feelings of being at home to the routine of my new life, to the familiarity of a new setting. But the truth is, I was carrying home with me all along. My preference for sugar in my iced tea, my American accent, my habit of texting my mom every day and seeking out cats at every opportunity- these are the things that matter. When I left America in May, I didn’t leave my home for a new one in a new place. I simply took it with me to Brussels, to Amsterdam, to Paris.

The beauty of thinking that everywhere is home is in the implication that everywhere is generally the same. That nothing is truly foreign and so nothing is truly scary. It’s comforting and it’s simple. But it’s not true.

The truth is that new places can be scary. They can be unfamiliar and overwhelming and different. And that’s why we go. We go to be scared, to be enchanted, to be moved.  So, my loyal reader, I’d like to leave you with a final shred of what I hope can be considered wisdom (humor me): If we could allow ourselves to let go of the idea that everywhere is home, an idea to which I, like many other travelers, so desperately cling, then maybe we could see the more difficult reality: we alone are what determines home. Everywhere may not be home, but if we can embrace that and face it without fear or apprehension, we can make sure that home is everywhere.

The Blue Mountains Have Me Feelin’ the Opposite of Blue!

I’m back from the beautiful Blue Mountains and I couldn’t be happier! Monday was an allllll day travel day to fly from the Top End down to Sydney and then hop a bus to the mountains located outside of a cool town named Katoomba. Thank goodness for cold weather, because Kakadu felt like Florida during the middle of the day and it wasn’t the reminder of home I was really looking forward to. Our hostel was the most charming one I have ever had the pleasure of living in and was filled with a large ballroom we had lecture in and a quaint historical feel. Lots of hikes were scheduled for us, so we spent all of our free time after getting back so late from our daily treks and explorations cooking spaghetti together, stretching our sore calves with some yoga, and binge watching Netflix movies in the coziest sofas you could imagine (it was the backpacker life of luxury).

Our first full day in the mountains, we had a lecture from two aboriginal descendants and got the opportunity to hear what they believe about European settlement and its impact on their culture. We even saw some boomerangs and attempted to play the didgeridoo! Then we had our first hike down into the valley of the mountain range (and back out again). The Blue Mountains is kind of like what I would imagine a mixture of the Grand Canyon and the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina would look like because it had the eerie blue haze but with red and orange rock escarpments. *LOOK AT THE LINK BELOW FOR PICTURES! The first hour of our hike down into the forest was just stairs for an hour straight, and because they were wet from all the morning dew I of course had to fall… only because I was distracted by all the beautiful trees and waterfalls and nature and my heart was so filled with joy that I got too excited! On the way back out of the valley, the trail was filled with breathtaking views of a rock formation called the Three Sisters and we had a fun time taking the 21 flights of stairs up and out after we had already hiked 6 miles!

Wednesday morning we got up bright and early to go on another trail through the Blue Mountains where we went down into the canyon and through caves, under giant rock overhangs and waterfalls, and jumped along the canyon floor on little stepping stones. It was one of the coolest trails I’ve ever been on (which is saying something because I’ve been lucky enough to trek quite a few!) We stopped for yet another sandwich wrap lunch break (only the 3rd week in a row of this meal), but who can complain when you’ve got a front row seat to the valley view and fresh mountain air?! After we had stair- stepped and panted our way out of most of the valley, we took a somewhat illegal pitstop and wandered off the trail to a little rock bluff with a sheer drop off the side… of course I was loving it and we all took pictures of our victorious hiking poses. Our trail guide/ leader was fearing for her life in anticipation, but the view from the cliff was undeniably gorgeous and no one cared enough about safety to stay away from the ledge- oops its alright though no one died! After we finally got forced to leave, we hopped on the coach to our next stop- a wildlife refuge where we saw kangaroos, wallabies, emus, and quolls galore!

Next stop, SYDNEY!

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Markets and Mountains

It’s been a busy weekend!

Thursday night some friends and I explored Gangnam, the luxury district where “gangnam style” originated. This area was so cool! Skyscrapers were all around, and the streets lit up at night with huge streaming advertisements and flashing lights. We eventually found ourselves at a puppy café where we got to hold and pet a whole bunch of adorable puppies! The owner spoke English and was excited to see Americans at his café, so he had one of his workers lead the puppies in a “Stupid Puppy Class” – a little dog show. So precious!

On Friday, I went on the university’s Seoul City Tour field trip to Seoul tower, the Gyeongbokgung National Museum, a Traditional Korean Hanok Village, Geongbokgung palace, and Cheonggyecheon stream. It was very fast-paced, so I don’t have a lot to say about these places. It was neat sightseeing in Seoul and hearing some tidbits about Korean culture from the tour guide, though.

Saturday morning, I subway’d over to Mount Bugaksan, a mountain just to the north of central Seoul, to hike. This mountain is particularly cool because it contains preserved parts of the old fortress wall built in the 1300s and is in a military area, so there are places where hikers are not allowed to take pictures. There were surprisingly few people on the trail I took, which was great because it made it peaceful. These views were indescribable. From the top of the tallest peak Baegakmaru (342 m), I could see every direction of sprawling Seoul with its towers, rivers, and bordering mountains. At one point, I sat on a rock and cried because I was so moved.

Later that day, some friends and I went to an artisan market with live music in Hongdae. Venders were crocheting, painting, and making their various goods at their tables, which was really interesting to see! We listened to a man playing the guitar and singing, and he was phenomenal. Not understanding the words actually enhanced the performance for me; his emotions and tone carried themselves, not needing lyrics. Music is such a universal language!

We then made our way to a Buddhist temple near Insadong. Entering the temple area from the street was strange because one moment we were on a typical, crowded city street and the next we were in a zen garden, removed from it all. Nonetheless, it was peaceful! Those who created it did a surprisingly good job diminishing the impact of noise and bustle from the streets.

Since we were already somewhat close to Myeongdong, we thought we’d walk there for dinner and some shopping. On the way, we stumbled upon Seoul Cathedral during a service. It was cool visiting a Buddhist temple and a cathedral in the same day because Buddhism and Christianity are the two predominant religions in South Korea, and they live in such harmony.

That night, I hung out in Wangsimni with a huge group of University students. I love meeting all these explorative spirits from all over the world!

Sunday’s rain made me realize how much there is to do outdoors here! We made the most of it by going to Gangnam station for underground shopping. It’s really odd: there’s only one size of women’s clothing. I’m fine with it because it’s small, but it must be really rough on girls who have a little weight on them. Venders there felt similar to Chinatown in NYC in that they were extremely attentive and assertive about purchases. It was fun!

After that, we went to Lotte Mall in Jamsil. It was enormous (14 floors), but very Americanized so not actually incredibly exciting. Beautiful, though!

This weekend has given me an appreciation for what a rich city Seoul is. There are overwhelming shopping districts like Gangnam, but there are also mountains that literally can make someone cry because of their beauty. So many feels!

(study) ABROAD

As I sit in a park in Utrecht tanning by a canal writing this blog, I can’t help but smile at how incredible my life right now. I’ve been in Utrecht for a week now, but with everything that has happened I find it impossible that I’ve only spent 7 nights here. From the Tour de France to a home cooked Italian meal to a 400 year old windmill to wandering Amsterdam’s Red light district, everything that I’ve seen has only been made that much better by the amazing people that I’ve met here in this short period of time.
A week ago the Tour de France arrived in Utrecht. First stop for Amber and I was to buy a bike ourselves- then race to the finish line to catch the Grand Depart of the tour. What was most amazing to me about the tour were the crowds that attended. It was busier than a gator football game, and that’s saying something. Gator football fans pack into a stadium, while Tour fans line the streets for MILES to cheer on riders.

Classes started on Monday, which I have to admit, I was slightly disappointed about. I know the term is STUDY abroad, but can’t I just do the abroad part? Despite my reservations, class is actually quite fun. It is a lot of lecture (When the Dutch tell you they’re brief and to the point, I beg to differ), but there is also a lot of group work and simulation games unlike my classes in America. The group work was a great way to break the ice and meet people. I was surprised at the diversity of the class. Pretty much the only people from America here are from UF, while the rest of the class comes from places as far away as Indonesia, South Korea, and Turkey. Myself and two other girls from UF, Savannah and Amber, have grown close to a group of Italians who we cook dinner with and explored Amsterdam with yesterday. Exploring a new place is always fun, but it’s even more fun to be in new places with new people.

It’s the newness of it all that keeps me so engaged. The Netherlands is an absolutely BEAUTIFUL country, but as foreign as it is to me certain parts remind me of home. We visited the Zaanse Schans yesterday, which has the beautiful historic windmills. Obviously the windmills aren’t commonplace in Florida, but the agriculture and drainage of the land and peat moss at the Zaanse stuck a chord with what I know in Florida. I like to think that I’m adapting to Dutch culture well, but there are little parts of me that will always be Florida. For example, I’m tanning right now. While listening to country music. And drinking an iced tea.

One of our assignments for class was to write an essay comparing American culture with another country using Hofstede’s 6 Dimensions of Culture. While American culture is very different from the culture of my peers from South Korea, Italy, and Indonesia we all still manage to find common ground and enjoy working with each other. And in my opinion, that’s more of a learning experience than what I can learn in class.

The One Where Everything is Awesome

It’s only been a couple days since I’ve been in Madrid, but I already feel like I’ve been on so many adventures. After a long flight I arrived at the orientation hotel where I met all the other students on the same program as me. I love it because we’re all from different places – ranging from America, to Australia, to China! Not only am I learning about the culture in Spain, I’m learning about the world.

One of the things I was most nervous about was receiving my host family. Really, I didn’t need to be worried at all. I got so lucky with my amazing hosts. I live with an elderly host mother and two of her (out of 10!) children. Such a big familia! One of her kids is pretty good at English too, which is comforting when I don’t know how to say something in Spanish.

View from my apartment:

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We live in Barrio de Salamanca, which is residential and beautiful! It feels a lot like 5th Avenue in New York. In fact, Madrid reminds me a lot of New York in some ways. Public transportation is everywhere, but there’s also lots of places you can walk to. However, things are a lot less rushed here, which is pretty nice.

There’s definitely some things different here than America. First of all, when you meet or see someone somewhere, instead of a hug or a handshake, you give them two kisses by the cheeks (remember: left first). Spaniards like to stare a lot, too. To a foreigner, it seems rude, but it’s just the way they are. Also, the siesta is real. And it’s amazing.

Speaking of amazing…food. Definitely amazing. Within the first couple of days my host mother made me a lot of typical Spanish dishes like gazpacho (cold tomato soup) and tortilla (like a big omelet of egg and potatoes usually). I thought the late eating times in Madrid were going to be hard for me, but it’s actually worked out well thanks to all the tapas (small plates of food) bars.

A highlight of my experience here so far was the tenth annual Gay Pride Parade. Never would I have thought I’d be dancing in a parade through the streets of Madrid at night. Never have I seen so many shirtless men in one place too.

Pride parade:

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There’s been a couple of struggles along the way though. My apartment, like most others in Madrid, doesn’t have A.C., which can be tough when it’s 100 degrees outside. I also have to take cold showers. I’ve gotten lost quite a few times too. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s all worth it to be here in this awesome city.