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Madrid, Toledo, and the Creepings of Culture Shock

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I have now been in Bilbao for over three weeks! Part of that seems crazy to me; it feels like I only just spent a night in front of the Eifel Tower with Link, but on the other hand, I am really starting to get into a groove here. I have a feel for all of my classes (and am wishing they were more challenging!), I can find my way around large sections of Bilbao without a map, and I have found a comfortable friend group. Not that everything is suddenly easy! Culture shock is definitively closing in, but more on that later in the post.

Things at my homestay have continued to grow more interesting as I now have a new host brother to interact with. His name is Danny, a 28 year old law student from Leon, Spain, who my host mom agreed to host during his first year of study at the University of Deusto law school. As far as I can tell, he has never lived away from home before (it is common in Spain for children to live with their parents until their 30s, even if they are married!), so he is undergoing his own culture shock even as I am. On the whole though, he seems like a nice guy, and it is great to have yet another person to practice Spanish with and to hear his opinions on and experiences of Spanish life and culture. We’ll see how this goes!

To mix things up and help us bond, last weekend 33 students from my program were swept away from Bilbao along with 3 chaperones/tour guides for a three day, two night excursion to Madrid and Toledo. Coordinating such a large group is inevitably challenging, and it was by necessity a very different trip from those I am used to, I prefer traveling solo or with a very small, close-knit group. So I frequently was very frustrated by the pace of the trip (slow to get from place to place, rushed through sights where I wanted to linger, too much background info on things I found boring, etc.) and by how tightly our movements were controlled by the group leaders. Still, I am very grateful to have made it out to these two famous and fabulous cities.

In Madrid, we took tours of the Palacio Real (the King’s old 19-20th century digs, nothing on my trip to Versailles, but still plenty to appreciate) and the Prado Museum (I wish we could have lingered longer!), and had a walking tour of old Madrid. While Madrid is certainly bustling and exciting, on the whole it didn’t feel particularly special to me in terms of having a distinctive character; it kind of felt like just another big city.

That said, I had a great time wandering around on our free Saturday evening with a few friends, window shopping (playing like silly tourists with traditional Madrid wooden fans!) and enjoying street performers. Our highlight by far was the Flamenco music and dance show we stumbled across, complete with free sangria. The performance was enrapturing, performed by a troupe of three musicians and two dancers on a small stage in a traditional brick basement, often seemingly improvised and collaborated on the spot. It didn’t seem at all to be a show purely for the enjoyment of tourists, but simply an outlet for these five passionate individuals to joyfully showcase their art. I never wanted the 45-minute show to end.

Toledo made much more of an impression as an “old world” city, with a very distinctive charm and a sense of adventure around every corner. We took a bus tour of the city’s exterior ramparts before exploring the old city and Jewish district on foot. Toledo is famous for its sword forges, and we made a touristy but still very cool stop at one of them. Nerd as I am, I know that all of the important swords for the Lord of the Rings movies were crafted in Toledo, and I bought myself an official mini replica of Bilbo Baggins’ sword, Sting. The other most famous traditional product of Toledo is its marzipan. I have never been a huge fan of the almond paste sweet, but my mind was changed by the delicate, bread-shaped pieces of marzipan we sampled, hand made in small batches by local nuns. Yum!

We next took a lengthy tour through Toledo’s gothic cathedral, which was stunning, but crowded as it was being prepared for a Mozart concert the next night which was to be attended by the Spanish Queen Mother. While we only spent a total of maybe five hours in Toledo, I could have spent many days exploring its cobblestone streets or walking along the mountains and rivers surrounding the town. I would love to go back some day for an extended trip!

Since we got back from the excursion, I’ve actually begun to find ways to keep myself busier. I have taken a job tutoring 11-year-old twin girls in English for three hours a week–a fun challenge and a welcome source of income. Next week I will start volunteer work and hopefully join a choir to keep my days even more full and exciting.

On top of all of that, it is finally starting to cool down and feel like fall, which makes me far more eager to go exploring and aimlessly wandering, since I can do so without sweating my butt off. Bilbao may be tiny, but it has a multitude of distinctive neighborhoods and several nearby hiking paths, and I am eager to traverse as many of them as possible before December.

Still, classes don’t take up very much time at all, and I have next to no homework. When I do find long stretches of time with absolutely nothing on my agenda, or alternatively have a long list of things to do but find them much harder to achieve than I think they should be, it is easy to become blue, getting sucked in by that unwelcome traveling companion, Culture Shock.

It’s funny, coming into this semester of study abroad I had harbored illusions about how this time, I would be immune to the negative effects of culture shock. I’ve traveled before, and no way could Spain affect me like Cambodia did! Well, of course this is not the case. I am just as susceptible to culture shock as anyone else, but I do have the potential benefit of increased self-awareness. After the initial lovely honeymoon period of loving Europe as a whole and specifically the lovely city of Bilbao, I find myself starting to get cranky and mildly homesick from time to time. But now, because of my previous travel experience, an irritating little bug goes off in my head, usually in a condescending and reprimanding British accent, to remind me that, “No no, you don’t actually think Spain is stupid because of its lack of coffee shop culture or DIY pharmacies, you are merely experiencing ‘culture shock,’ so go find something new and exciting to appreciate, and perhaps get over yourself.” While in the moment I might argue back a bit with my apparently British “judgey but wiser” inner guide, convinced that my struggle is, in fact, ‘real,’ it is ultimately comforting to recognize that while I am inevitably going to encounter frustrations and negativity due to culture shock, they will be temporary. I will adapt, find my niche, and fall back into love with Bilbao before my time comes to depart. This makes the difficult moments easier to process emotionally, and helps them from building up into a seemingly impossible cultural barrier that I have to cross.

True, I still am on the lookout for places to chill and do homework other than bars or the ominously silent library, and I deeply wish that I could go buy contact lens solution without having to endure a difficult conversation in Spanish with a pharmacist, but with my self knowledge and confidence that culture shock will be temporary, it is easier to turn these struggles into comedic adventures knowing that I will overcome self-deprecation with a laugh at myself rather than a curse at Spain and a sense of despair. In the meantime, since comforts like favorite foods, familiar ways to accomplish chores, and ease of communication are lost to me, I allow myself comfort books and have been re-reading the entire Harry Potter series to help cheer myself up on days when the culture shock starts to try to get me down. Maybe that’s why my inner traveler’s voice of reason is British.
By the time I post this, I will have had a busy weekend at an international film festival in the nearby beach town of San Sebastian and a romp through a Spanish renaissance faire in another neighboring town, Vittoria. Who has time to let culture shock get you down when there is so much to explore?! My dad recently reminded me, “The ‘ordinary’ is just a filter.” We each have a daily choice to find the beauty, love, and adventure in all that we encounter, grand or small. It may be hard sometimes, but that’s what this type of experience is all about! I hope you see something spectacular in the “ordinary” today, but if you find unexpected drudgery getting you down, feel free to give my inner British travel companion a call, and we’ll sort you out in no time!

First Weeks in Florence

photo 2 photo 3 photo 4 photo 5It has been an exciting couple of weeks! Since our last encounter I have done much more than I expected to do in such a short amount of time. Other than wondering around Florence, I have started classes (which I must say I am very happy with, my teachers are amazing) and I have traveled to both Cinque Terre and Milan.

Cinque Terre was a last minute trip planned by a couple of friends I made in the program. The easiest way to explain this amazing place is by saying that it is located on the coast of the Italian Riviera. The area is split into 5 small towns (hence the name “The Five Lands”) in between hills and mountains that overlook the sea. The colorful houses and small buildings are stacked one after the other giving each of them an amazing view. After climbing many, many stairs, getting on several trains that took us from town to town, and then hopping on a 40-minute boat ride we finally got the chance to hit the beach. After a long day we had visited all five and were rewarded with a nice swim and some amazing pizza.

A week after coming back from Cinque Terre, a friend from back home and I decided to head on over to Milan. The train ride from Florence to Milan was only an hour and forty minutes so we got on the earliest train and got to Milan with a whole day to wonder. We visited the Cathedral, the Duomo, a park nearby, and then eventually ended up in an amazing street called Navaglio Grande. Although we did get lost several times on our way there, once we got to the area we fell in love. Through the middle of the street runs a river, splitting it in two, yet multiple bridges that connect both sides made it easy to wander from one side of the river to the other. The river was surrounded by restaurants, small shops and bars which came to life as we sat down for dinner and watched the sun slowly go down. It was an amazing day.

I feel like I have come a long way from being that girl who had just gotten off the plane and was worried that she wasn’t going to be able to figure out anything about the amazing city that is Florence. Between the language barrier and culture shock, I didn’t really know how I was going to get by. But, with every day that goes by the more I fall in love with the city and the more I get excited to learn all about it. Hopefully there will be many more adventures to come. Ciao until then!

 

Carolina R

Back in the USA

So I have been avoiding writing this blog entry for a number of reasons. The first reason being that I had to take a few days to adjust to the time change. Going to Australia and being 15 hours ahead was actually easier to adjust to than coming back which is now 14 hours ahead because of daylight savings—the state I lived in doesn’t do daylight savings. Going there was probably easier to adjust because I had activities or events I needed to attend at specific times and be awake for. Also, even if I wanted to take a nap, I forced myself to stay awake and meet people. However, being home, I don’t have much on my plate (until I go back to NU) so I don’t feel as pushed to convert back to this time zone for a ‘normal’ sleep schedule.
The other main reason I have been avoiding writing this is that it’s hard to believe that my study abroad went by so quickly. Basically that is THE main reason. It’s sad to not be planning another trip and also not seeing the same people. Having that one person that you’ll see at the library, that one person you usually see on your way to breakfast—little conversations like that.
It is difficult to compare this feeling to anything else and to describe it. It’s a different feeling than coming home from a semester of NU, different than coming home after sleep away camp. Even though I am back in my home country, I adjusted to Australian life, and that became my ‘normal.’ For now, I don’t really have a ‘normal,’ and it’s the little things that are the strangest.
I have wanted to go to Australia for my whole life, so this trip in its entirety was a dream come true. It’s hard to have something like that end. Looking back on it feels unreal, and I would absolutely love to go back sometime later in life. I met a lot of amazing people and did heaps of incredible things. I learned a lot about myself while traveling and have gained valuable life experiences.
All of this goes back to me choosing Northeastern. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined accomplishing so much at just 21 years old. My co-op at the New England Aquarium fostered my love for penguins and marine life, which very much shaped my time in Australia. I’m no Eliza Thornberry, but animals absolutely amaze me and I can’t wait to learn more about them in further classes and hopefully another animal related co-op. Northeastern has given me the opportunity to achieve an incredible amount and has helped me pave the road that I want to take in life.
Thanks to anyone reading this entry and anyone who has read any of my previous ones as well, I’ve enjoyed writing these entries! It is still difficult to capture all of my experiences in words. I am incredibly grateful for this life-changing experience and would love to thank the NU Office of International Study Programs for all of their help in this process—I wouldn’t have been able to do it without you guys.
For any student reading this… STUDY ABROAD!!! You won’t regret it. You will meet people and do things that will create memories that will stay with you for a lifetime. Also shout out to one of my best Australian mates, Lachie (short for Lachlan, a popular Australian name), who bugged me all semester to feature him in my blog. Thanks for being a great friend and for all of your help teaching me Australian things, I will definitely share them with my friends here in America!!!
This weekend I am heading back to Boston for Summer 1 classes at NU. I’m excited to be back in Boston but I’m sure I will somehow manage to squeeze something about Australia into everyday conversations.
Cheers!!
Shannon

Wild Week in the Côte d’Azur

IMG_0115 IMG_0169 IMG_0078 IMG_0040[1]Hello again everyone!

It’s been one week since I was launched across the Atlantic into my new home, and I don’t even know where to begin. My flight was through Air Canada, and my route went from Boston to Quebec to Nice. My Boston-Quebec flight was delayed SO much that I nearly missed my connection to Nice. I almost chewed my hands off while I just watched the “DELAY” stay up on the screen. But I made it just in time.

On Sunday (Day 0), before I left for Nice , I did some quantum algebra to figure out the time-difference. If I wanted to make the smoothest entry into the +6 hour time zone (relative to EST) I would have to sleep on the plane as much as possible. Unfortunately, on the flight I was handed a piece-of-paper as a pillow to compliment my worst-chair-ever-3000, so I slept maybe an hour.

On Monday (Day 1), when I landed, my bags were delayed (AIR CANADA! COME ON!) but luckily I met up with my CEA driver who was tasked with bringing me straight to my apartment. I was joined by two other fellow CEA members, and we took a scenic route from Nice to Antibes. The weather was beautiful, and my tired eyes were able to see beaches, palm trees(planted, not indigenous), hotels, and resorts. What wasn’t so beautiful was the French driving. The French streets are VERY tight, drivers are VERY aggressive, and street laws are VERY loose. Thankfully, I made it to my apartment alive.

When I arrived, I was greeted by my CEA on-site guide and specialist, Kristin. In a blur, I was brought up three flights of stairs of a 500-year old building and dropped off in my apartment. My apartment (which I share with my roommate, Alexei; he showed up later in the day) was plenty large enough for two people, is located in the old-Antibes, overlooks a fresh-food market and plenty of bars/restaurants, is a 3 minutes walk from the beach, and is located next to the Picasso Museum. Not to brag, but it’s pretty fricken sweet.

The first day was exciting, tiring, and terrifying. After struggling to find some food and learn my street, my roommate moved in and we set up camp. Alexei and I get along well, and we’re pretty similar (if you’re reading this, hey!), so I really lucked out overall with my housing. The rest of the day passed, and we woke up ready for our walking tour of Antibes in the morning.

On Tuesday ( Day 2) we met up with the entire CEA group (around 20 students) to take a tour of Antibes. I learned everyone’s names, hometowns, etc., and then we were off! We began the day with a bus-tour that drove us around the scenic parts of the city and told us some interesting facts. After that, we began our walking tour. During the walking tour, Kristin told us a ton of information and history about Antibes, along with showing us where important buildings and facilities were.  After both tours, I felt a lot more comfortable with the city. The next day was my French university’s orientation, so I got back home and rested for it. I must have been jet lagged, though, since I woke up at 2:30 am feeling completely awake. It was pretty weird, but I managed to fall asleep again at around 5.

On Wednesday (Day 3) all of the CEA members  made our way to SKEMA university for orientation. It’s a quick 20 minute bus ride up north to Sophia Antipolis, a technology park or “technopole.” Our campus is quaint, with pine needles smothering the ground and French students chatting everywhere. The university is not all French though, there are an abundance of international students whom I met during the orientation. After getting my class schedule and having some delicious lunch at the school, Alexei and I returned to our apartment and realized that our fridge was bone-dry empty.

To remedy our lack of food, Alexei and I followed CEA student Isaac to a supermarket half of a mile away from our apartment. What we did not realize is that we would have to walk the half of a mile back. With 80+ pounds of groceries. I probably shouldn’t have bought that 6-pack of milk (apparently milk is able to last weeks unrefrigerated since France ultra-pasteurizes their dairy. Source; Alexei.) After the most uncomfortable trek in our lives, we had food in our apartment for tomorrow: the first day of school.

Thursday (Day 4) began like any year of school. I prepared my things, went to the bus stop, and arrived at my class: Macro Economics. For SKEMA, each course is only held once a week for 3 hours, so I got comfortable and began listening to our German teacher. Each class is taught in English, and my multilingual professor spoke fluently and clearly. After class, I went home and prepared for the on-campus international exchange integration group’s first big party. Hosted on the beaches of Juan-les-Pins, the party was meant to integrate French and foreign students. I went with a large group, it was a blast and I met a ton of French students.

For Friday (Day 5) I had no classes and was free the whole day. I had already visited the beaches a few times so I decided to just chill until dinner, when we cooked some fresh butcher’s sausage into sauce and penne. The meat from the local butchers is extremely fresh, and sometimes cheaper than the supermarket! After having some friends over for dinner, we all visited a local Pub, the “Hop Store.” The music was awesome-with a ton of classic American songs, both rock and pop-the pub was packed and the atmosphere was electric.

Saturday (Day 6) began with a SKEMA scavenger hunt around Antibes. The SKEMA staff put together a nice quiz that brought everyone around the city to explore museums, markets, and squares. This hunt was the last piece of the puzzle for me, and I felt as if I truly knew the city now. After lunch, I relaxed at the beach that I had been frequenting all week (La Plage de la Gravette) then went home and prepared for our first CEA excursion on Sunday.

Sunday (Day 7) was big. CEA planned a huge tour for our group that would begin in Nice, then move to Eze, then to Monaco and finally Monte-Carlo. We all boarded a private luxury bus with soft seats and air conditioning and began to drive down along the scenic pebble beaches to Nice. Once we arrived in Nice, we explored the old-town and the new-town, stopping at places like the open market and the beach. Our tour guide told us that Nice used to be part of Italy, it was founded around the 4th century BC, and that it held an immense amount of history. The sights were beautiful, and after walking around we boarded the bus again for Eze.

Eze had the best views. Since it is located atop a hill, you are able to see the entire city of Nice and its beaches. At Eze, we took a tour of the local perfume factory and then walked to the top of the ville. The little town had old churches, wooden creaky doors and ancient streets. There was no time to spare though, so we boarded our bus and headed to the luxurious Monaco.

Monaco is located in France but is technically its own country (think the Vatican.) Its one of the richest areas of the world since it has 0% tax for everything, therefore the rich like to move here to avoid high tax rates. After crossing the boarder, I was stunned by the beautiful architecture, giant yachts, and expensive cars swarming the city. Speaking of cars, Monaco is the home to the Formula 1 race track, which our bus drove around. Our tour’s last location was Monte-Carlo, a city in Monaco. Monte-Carlo is the ultra-rich part of the country, and we able to explore the casino region. The cars were amazing. Almost every car was a Mercedes, a Maserati, or a Lamborghini, and I even caught a fleeting glimpse of a Bugatti, After an hour or so of gawking at the cars, we all loaded up on the bus and returned home to Antibes.

So, that’s my first week, or at least the important bits. Thank you for reading! Next time, I’ll have more stories of travel, parties, and European askewness. Until the next post, au revoir!

Florence… I have arrived!

 

pic carolina

Hello all,

My name is Carolina and I am currently a third year Graphic Design major. I have always had a passion for art and discovering new things. Ever since I can remember I haven’t missed a chance to create something or get my hands dirty with a new project, and I have been very fortunate that my parents have been able to provide me with a good amount of travel experience. Yet, when the opportunity of going aboard for a semester presented itself, I am ashamed to say that contrary to what one may think, I did not immediately jump on the chance to go. Although studying a full semester in Florence, Italy did sound appealing, the thought of leaving the comfort of Northeastern and my friends made me doubt my choice to leave. But it wasn’t long before I realized that opportunities like this don’t happen very often, therefore I decided to put myself to work and now here I am, on the other side of the world.

Although I would like to say that I have been aboard in Florence for a while I can’t, as I have just arrived a couple of hours ago. I have yet to experience much, but what I have been able to catch glimpses of has been amazing. Just walking to and from my building to the little convenience store at the street corner makes me feel like I have just been dropped into the middle of a movie. People have also been very nice, especially considering my lack of knowledge of the language. But, just because I can’t yet tell you much about this beautiful city that does not mean that I can’t tell you about my journey here.

After months and months of getting things together – visa, medicines, paper work, etc. – the day finally came to leave. The packing had taken its toll on me as I had attempted to put 4 months worth of clothing into one suitcase. Although the urge to take everything in site was hard to resist the truth is the clothes you take won’t make your trip, and anything you don’t take can be easily purchase in one of the many stores found around the city. So just remember that when packing, only take those few basic things you can’t live without, because you can survive 4 months without your favorite coconut shampoo, trust me.

Aside from the packing and getting things straitened out, one of the biggest obstacles to overcome were my nerves and doubting about whether I made the right decision by choosing to go abroad, especially when all your friends will stay together back in school. As I got to the airport this fear seemed even bigger as I found myself alone in a huge airport, but slowly people started coming together, which comforted me. I even talked to a girl on my flight about it and she told me that same thing had bothered her when she decided to leave for the semester; it was nice to know I wasn’t alone. Because even though the feeling that everything you know back home will keep moving on without you might be a bit hard to digest, the truth is you are just taking a little bit of a detour, and you’ll be back before you know it. So, if you are unsure of whether you should go abroad or not just remember it is easy to get lost in small moments. When in doubt just think about all the amazing experiences you are about to make with all these new people who have the same mindset of having the greatest time they can during their time abroad. I have only been here hours and I already know that the adventures just beginning.

 

Arrivederci!

Carolina R

A Long Wander to Bilbao

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Hi Mom! (Wait- you mean other people are going to read about my travels, too? Awesome!) Hi everyone! My name is Heidi. I’m a fourth year transfer student at Northeastern, and I’ll be blogging about my study abroad experience in Bilbao, Spain this fall. You’ll learn more about me through my writing over the course of the semester, but here are the basics: I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, with passions for vegan baking, theatre of the oppressed, puppies, sculptural crochet, social justice, dinosaurs, spontaneous rainstorms, and all things travel. But now let’s get down to the important stuff about this semester. Where exactly am I going?!

Bilbao is nestled in the mountains just inland from the Northern coasts of Spain, a metropolis where Basque and Spanish cultures collide and blend. It is a center of art and culture but more off the beaten track than more traditional Spanish study abroad sites like Madrid or Barcelona because of its history of industry and political conflict. I hadn’t even heard of it until I began researching study abroad, but I am thrilled to say that the University of Deusto, Bilbao, is where I will be spending this fall. As an anthropology and international affairs major, intersections of cultural difference, international politics, and individual lived experiences are at the core of my academic and personal interests and are at the heart of what I will be exploring during my time in Bilbao. While more recognizable cultural capitals of Spain like Barcelona and Madrid were highly appealing, my primary goal for study abroad is true cultural immersion. The high concentration of study abroad students and tourists in these cities can make it easy to be swept up in a culture of fellow Americans more interested in drinks and cheap thrills rather than focusing on being deliberately situated in the daily lived experiences of Spaniards. Bilbao has a rich heritage, with a smaller, more serious concentration of study abroad students. As an anthropologist, I am also interested in Bilbao as the capital of the Basque region of Spain which has a history of political conflict with the rest of the country and in 1978 was awarded the status of an autonomous nationality.

I arrive in Spain in less than a week, and while many of my fellow Northeastern students preparing to study abroad this fall are probably at home in the final stages of packing, I have already been on the road since the middle of July– first just to visit friends in Chicago and Maryland, then to my cousin’s wedding in Washington, D.C., but since August 11th, I have been in Europe. While I’ve traveled before in Central America, including spending my 11th grade year in Costa Rica with my family, and I spent last fall on a co-op internship in Cambodia, this is my very first time to Europe, and it has been thrilling so far. (Though packing was quarrelsome – I needed summer and winter gear, and was only allowed one checked bag of 44lbs and a regular old backpack to carry-on! Thank goodness I had my mom for her packing expertise!) I spent my first two weeks in Europe traveling with my 17 year old brother through the United Kingdom (London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Bath) and Paris. We get along superbly, and it was great to have a travel buddy, since I usually travel solo. Highlights for me included a tour of the Scottish Highlands with a cruise on Loch Ness (no luck seeing the monster!), exploring all the historic sights of Paris, and dipping in the ancient hot springs that flowed through the Roman baths in (you guessed it) Bath. My brother and I will also proudly admit to being huge nerds, so our other favorite sights were touring the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studio (I cried like a baby when I saw the giant Hogwarts filming model), and the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff.

We parted ways in Paris, and I am now halfway through a solo trip in Italy with stops in Venice, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Siena, some Tuscan hill towns, and the one and only Rome. If that sounds exhausting, that’s because it certainly is, and my poor feet must certainly hate me by now. I won’t say I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, or that it’s been easy. Traveling on a budget and visiting over twelve places in three weeks is hard work, and it is often hard for me to remember to take care of myself when I am so desperate to not miss a single thing. But I certainly have no regrets.

I rediscovered something important about myself while biking around the ramparts of the small, walled town of Lucca, Italy. A concept that has long been important to me is the one of “flow,” a mental place you reach when you are so deeply engrossed in an activity that you lose all sense of time and self and are purely existing passionately and deeply in the moment. Everyone finds their flow in different ways, and you can feel lost and unbalanced if you go through life for too long without losing yourself in it. Your flow might come through running, drawing, or solving complex puzzles. I sometimes reach it through performing on a stage or cooking an elaborate meal.

But I am most deeply in my flow when I am traveling. Specifically, I feel most whole when I am walking alone in a place that I have never been before, simply wandering with no destination or goal but to explore and discover. I find my flow in those quiet stretches when I am so lost in wonder that time and identity don’t make sense at all, and all I know is the secret splendors of this world that is beautiful, strange, and new to me with the turn of every corner. In these moments, I am the most and the least myself, as I become in tune with my environment. Alice Walker wrote, “The more I wonder, the more I love.” This love I feel through the joy of exploration is why I need travel.

I won’t be moving around quite so much once I land in Bilbao in a few days, though my program does include a few trips over long weekends. But the spirit of discovery will persist as I shift from tourist to temporary resident and student of Basque culture and life. I don’t officially have my classes yet, but I will be taking courses exclusively in Spanish, focusing on cultural heritage and language immersion. Fingers crossed that I get into the Spanish through Gastronomy cooking class! Thanks to the aforementioned year in Costa Rica, my Spanish is pretty good but will need brushing up, especially when it comes to grammar! I’m sure it will be up to scruff in no time, though, since my linguistic (and cultural) immersion will extend to my home life as well. I will be living with a host mother, who has asked me to call her Conchita, in her home close to the university. We’ve emailed a bit, and I can’t wait to meet her. More on that in my next post!

My goals for study abroad are to entirely immerse myself in the culture in which I am situated, to find in hands-on experience the applied realities of my academic studies, and to approach each day with an ethnographic magnifying glass and an open heart. I’ll keep you updated every two weeks or so on how my journey is going. Feel free to ask questions in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer. For now, I have Tuscany and Rome left to enjoy before moving on to the next grand adventure. ¡Hasta pronto! See you soon.

Melbourne

DSCN0519 DSCN0487Similar to ‘reading day,’ Bond University has a week off before final exams commence. Most of the study abroad students take this as a vacation because we haven’t had any (official) days off this semester. Bond runs on a trimester system, so they don’t have ‘Spring Break’ or anything. They get 3 weeks off between each semester. I’ve wanted to go to Melbourne for a while, especially to see little blue penguins in the wild. I went from Friday to Tuesday with my friend Becca. It was a pretty packed trip. When we got there on Friday, we explored the city, went into a bunch of free museums and watched a free comedy show. We got dinner with my friend Leah from my high school (and Northeastern) who is studying abroad a bit out of the city. It’s so weird seeing people you know in a different country, definitely nice though!

On Saturday we did a Great Ocean Road tour. A lot of time was spent on the tour bus, the road is about 250km! (150 miles). I still haven’t gotten used to these conversions. We stopped every once in a while for sight seeing and pictures. We also saw koalas in the wild. The tour was from 7am to about 9pm so it was a long day.

The next day, we went on a tour from 9am to 10pm. It was a wildlife tour, including stops at a wildlife sanctuary, several beautiful beaches, the fallen London Bridge, and last but not least, Phillip Island. The wildlife sanctuary had albino kangaroos which was very interesting! As for penguins, hundreds of little blue penguins reside on Phillip Island. At the New England Aquarium, where I did my first co-op with the penguins, we have little blue penguins as well.

Every night at Phillip Island, hundreds of penguins come out of the ocean to make their way back to their burrows after a long day of hunting and swimming. Seeing them in the wild was indescribable and it filled me with emotions. I was tearing up and it made me so incredibly happy! 13 out of the 18 species of penguins are currently endangered or vulnerable to endangerment. The little blues are not of those 13 species, but things can change very quickly, and it’s hard to keep tabs on how many of them there are. They may be vulnerable to endangerment and we may not even know it. Penguins are very dear to my heart and I am extremely passionate about them, so seeing them in the wild was a dream come true.

On Monday, I spent the day at the Melbourne Zoo. My boss at the aquarium worked with the head of Communications at the zoo so I was able to get some behind the scenes action. I spent the day with the zookeepers of the Wild Sea Team. They take care of 24 little blue penguins, 2 pelicans, and currently 2 seals. They only take female seals that are too injured to go back into the wild, or that have been in rehabilitation too long to be able to adjust to life in the wild again. Another requirement is that their seals are ones that have been injured due to human causes. It really helps with education and sends a message about how detrimental humans have been to such amazing animals. They only take females because their exhibit is not large enough to be comfortable for the large males to live in.

My day at the zoo made me miss the penguins at the NEAq so much! As I am nearing the end of my study abroad, I am very sad to leave Australia. However, I am so lucky to have so many things to look forward to come back home to. My family, friends, coworkers, and school are all things that I am fortunate to have in my life and that will make coming home from this wonderful country a lot more bearable. Being this far away from home has been a challenge, as has being away from my friends at school that I have gotten so close to in the past few years. I am even looking forward to moving back into my apartment.
But enough of that, I will write a reflection about my experience when I get home. I have two finals coming up and I have a lot of studying to do for them. Anyways, Melbourne was amazing, and I’m thrilled that I got to do so much while I was there. Time to get studying, goodbye for now!

THE Great Barrier Reef!!!

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3/18/13, Tuesday

So on Sunday night I returned from another amazing adventure, one that I have been wanting to go on for years. On Wednesday morning I went to Cairns with 5 of my American friends who are all SCUBA certified. From Thursday morning to Saturday afternoon we lived on a boat and went diving at the Great Barrier Reef.

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The trip was SO much fun and we got to see so many cool things. We did 11 dives in total and each dive was about 40 minutes. We saw jellyfish, sharks, corals, anemones, turtles and dozens of different species of fish. Two of our dives were night dives where we used flashlights (or as Australians call them, torches) so we could see. It was interesting what the nightlife was like underwater. We ended up seeing 2 sharks on one of our night dives (or maybe we just saw the same shark twice, not sure).

Only 3 of our dives were ‘guided,’ meaning that we were only with an instructor for 3 dives. For the other dives we were in buddy groups. The first dive was guided so we could get a feel of the water, and our first night dive was guided as well because only one of us had been on a night dive before. Another dive one of the instructors, Sam, asked if we wanted him to go with us (just for fun) and I am so glad we said yes! We ended up seeing a turtle and were able to play with it! The turtles are so friendly and we got SO up close. It is interesting that the wildlife was so untroubled by our presence underwater, we were not seen as a threat at all, perhaps at sometime just an annoyance.

The key was to approach the animals slowly so they do not swim away and so that they do not feel threatened. As I write this I am still in awe that I actually got to do this. Definitely a few of the best days of my life and I couldn’t have spent it in a better place with better people. It is hard to put in words the beauty of the reef, and even the photographs do not completely capture the magnificence. The Great Barrier Reef is an amazing piece of nature and it is a shame that it is being destroyed by human activity and global warming. Being able to see a part of the reef before it is further damaged is a privilege in itself and I will remember it for the rest of my life.

Now back to the real world and tons of schoolwork,
Shannon