I have officially been in Europe for 3 weeks. I’ve finished an entire course, took a few weekend trips around the country, and even stayed in Stockholm, Sweden for a few days. I’ve eaten great food, terrible food, and had some interesting experiences while watching Danes drink in the streets at Distortion, one of the largest music festivals in Europe that spills socialization into the streets during the longest summer days. I’ll be honest in saying this post is as much for me as it is for my readers: whether you’ve enjoyed reading about my experiences or not, it has been an excellent way for me to keep my thoughts straight through my adventures. So, This is going to be a small weekly review, from arrival to the start of my second session. (more…)
Archive for the ‘Academics’ Category
I am three weeks into my course looking at what is remembered and what is forgotten in Berlin’s history. In our short time here we have gone on numerous excursions as a class to visit sites that reflect this theme.
In our second week we had our longest and most intimidating journey, a visit to a concentration camp. This past semester I took a class on the history of the Holocaust as part of my history degree, so I knew the logistics of what happened. I knew that Sachsenhausen was a concentration camp just outside of Berlin. I knew it held prisoners for a variety of qualities categorized as criminal offenses by the Third Reich, from political beliefs and sexual orientation to being Jewish, Sinti, or Roma. I just didn’t know what to expect when seeing the camp in person.
To get to the camp we took an hour-long ride on the S-Bahn followed by a 10-minute bus ride through a picturesque town. Upon arrival we were met with a large map of the camp emphasizing the enormity of Sachsenhausen.
The camp was meant to be the ideal model for all camps that would follow. Our guide explained the semi-circular set up of the camp. One main guard tower above the entrance was able to control the entire camp with one machine gun because the barracks fanned out like bicycle spokes from its base. A curved track paved with uneven stones separated the barracks from the tower. Prisoners were forced to carry weights while testing shoes for the German army, trekking back and forth across the track until collapsing from exhaustion.
Throughout the visit we were faced with the cruelty and suffering that was commonplace at the camp, from torture devices, gallows, and crowded bunks, to the crematorium. Some of us felt numb and uneasy, whispering to each other as we navigated the camp on our own.
In contrast to the raw leftovers of history we witnessed, were the intrusions of the current day. There were hundreds of other visitors to the camp that day, many with handheld, brick-like walkie-talkies that explained the history of the camp in whatever language was needed. There were some who snapped selfies in front of the gates near the sign that read “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – work sets you free. The experience left me feeling disconnected from what that site was.
Our visit to Sachsenhausen served as another example of how Germany handles its darkest period in history. During the war, the scenic town was still where it is today, right next to the camp. German civilians could not have ignored the enormous structure located down the street from their own homes. They would have witnessed the new prisoners arriving at the local train station and seen the smoke stacks as no one made a return trip. Similarly, the camp remains as prominent as it was as a reminder and warning to all of us today. If we allow ourselves to forget, then we are enabling the conditions of fear and hate that emboldened the Third Reich to take hold once more.
When I was preparing to study abroad there were a lot of warnings about culture shock and homesickness; and of course when my mom was driving away, leaving me at the airport, I was shaken up. That nervous feeling did not leave me until I met the other Indiana University students in Berlin. Since then I have been too busy exploring to be bothered by weird instances of cultural confusion, like the Kontrolleurs on the trains. The Kontrolleurs spend their days in plainclothes slipping onto trains and flashing their badges before requiring everyone to show their validated ticket. Being caught without the correct ticket will get you kicked off and earn you a pricey fine.
While I’m on the subject of public transportation, I think Bloomington could take some pointers from Berlin; they have it down to a beautiful, eco-friendly network of trams, trains and buses. To get to class I can take a tram from the hotel we are staying in on a five-minute ride to the Oranienburger Straße stop which is at most a two-minute walk from our classroom at IES. The trams are particularly nice because they have their own lane to operate in and only stop when requested, making for quicker commutes. To get virtually anywhere in the city, we can also take the U-Bahn, the underground train or the S-Bahn, the above-ground train. I prefer the S-Bahn because you can see the city as you travel. A tip to those riding public transportation, Germans are not fond of noisy, over-talkative groups so save your breath and keep it down. Also, don’t be alarmed if you feel like people are staring at you — I’ve gathered that they are just an observant bunch and don’t mean anything by it.
On our first day of class our professor paired us off and assigned us each a treasure hunt to find different sites or things around the city. Mine took me from the first place the Berlin Wall opened to the best döner kebab stand to a fancy mall overlooking the zoo. I felt like I was back at Freshman Orientation learning my way around campus and finding places to hang out or study. An early favorite of mine is the Teirgarten; a huge park perfect for jogging, sunbathing, reading, or just watching the other visitors, usually with their impressively obedient dogs in tow. When you are close to the outside perimeter of the park and can see the Brandenburg Gate, it feels just like any small, green space in any city; but when you are deep within it wildflowers, weeping willow trees and countless statues surround you. If you’re lucky and find yourself near the statues for Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn, you’ll hear chimes — solidifying the feeling that you are in some kind of fairytale.
After finishing our scavenger hunt we reunited with our class to tour the Reichstag, the home of Germany’s parliament. Touring the Reichstag gave an interesting insight into the theme of our class. The exterior of the building has historic grandeur while the inside is pristinely modern. There are few reminders of the mysterious fire that destroyed part of the building in 1933 after Hitler came to power.
Our tour guide led us through the enormous glass doors and began to explain the dusty, charcoal graffiti found on the walls. At the end of World War II after taking Berlin, Soviet soldiers descended on the Reichstag and left their mark on the walls. She explained that it was decided that it would be preserved to serve as a constant reminder of Germany’s history.
We continued on our tour to an interior balcony overlooking a wall-sized window facing the east. Our guide pointed out the bullet holes left in the ceiling from the Battle of Berlin and then focused on the slightly darker line on the pavement outside. She explained the Berlin Wall used to run directly behind the Reichstag separating it from what used to be East Germany. She laughed as businessmen walked along the line, unaware that a group of tourists were observing, perhaps oblivious to what they were walking on. After one week here, these are the kind of ironic contrasts we are starting to get used to.
Being abroad for only a few weeks has already been a life changing experience. I have now been in Florence, Italy for exactly two weeks and have already accomplished more than I could have even imagined. This trip has been a whirlwind of chaos, excitement, and nerves and I could not be any happier. Leaving the day after the end of the semester was something that was very stressful, from trying to move out of my dorm and back into my family’s home, to packing up my stuff to live in a foreign country, on top of studying for finals is something that I would never have imagined accomplishing, but I did.
I left for Florence on Saturday, May 7 and arrived Sunday morning into Rome from Chicago and then proceeded to take a train from Rome to Florence. Arriving at the hotel on my own was intimidating, but once I got there, everyone was friendly and welcoming. My program is set in Florence for six weeks and there are about thirty people participating. Together, we all stay in a hotel which is on the top floor of a building that has amazing views of the center of Florence.
Let’s be real: everyone who studies abroad is so excited about the place they will be visiting and the people they will meet, not necessarily focusing on the courses being taught. As obvious as it might seem that STUDY abroad has quite a bit of work associated with it, it seems like some of the students who are studying around me are baffled by the expectation to complete work at such an exciting time. Along with studying during your adventures, students have all of these amazing plans that they know will absolutely work out 100% of the time and will be perfect and be life changing…
I think it’s time to set some realistic expectations for what you might experience while studying abroad. (more…)
Warning: most of this blog is me nerding out about how neat Planet Earth is.
A few weeks ago at a market in Sydney, I had a heart-to-heart conversation with a vendor at one of the booths about the Great Barrier Reef and the implications of climate change on humanity. We talked about the threats that our ecosystems are facing, and just how big of a role these reefs and oceans play in Australia’s economy and in the world.
Thinking about that conversation afterwards, it was one that I would never think of having back in Indiana. Being born and raised in landlocked Indiana, I never spent time around the ocean. It was never a major focus in any of my classes, let alone being talked about around the dinner table or at random markets. Yet, it’s such a common thing for Australians to talk about conserving their oceans and reefs and the threats among them.
For that reason, living next to an ocean and a place with such incredible wildlife has completely expanded my horizons of thinking about water, Earth, and everything that’s inhabiting it. In Indiana, I’ve studied aspects of biology that are equally important, but different nonetheless (IU, I still love and appreciate you!).
Over Easter, I took a trip to see the Great Barrier Reef first hand after I had been hearing all of this talk about it, and it turned out to be the most remarkable experience I’ve ever been blessed to have. I had never been snorkeling, let along scuba diving, and doing so blew me out of the water (quite literally). I felt like I was put in a scene straight out of Finding Nemo—bright corals, giant clams, schools of fish around my head, and even a shark that swam beneath me. While the reef in itself left me speechless, I also saw part of the reef that looked like it hadn’t fared so well. I saw fields of white, bleached coral in the distance, completely vacant of life that had once inhabited it. In these moments, it was easy to see the implications of climate change and how devastating it truly can be. Once I had seen something so lifeless that once had so much beauty, it was impossible for me to not feel passionate about the conservation of it.
The great thing about this experience and passion has been that I keep learning more and more about it in my classes. Something about the Great Barrier Reef gets brought up just about every other class because of how intertwined it is with all of biology. I’ve been able to study the biodiversity of molluscs in class, and the next week actually measure this diversity on the beach for ourselves. We’ve gone out on a boat to collect samples of plankton in the ocean to study them even further. Definitely different experiences than biology labs in Indiana!
So, a piece of advice for prospective study abroad students: go somewhere that will actually be beneficial to your major in ways that your home university cannot. I know studying abroad usually appeals because it seems like you’re going on a 6 month vacation (and you’re not completely wrong), but it is also an opportunity to completely reignite your passions or discover passions that you never knew you had. I have always been passionate about wildlife and the environment (a big reason why I’m studying biology), but being here has struck a different chord in me. It’s a new aspect that I would have never gotten in Indiana, as much as I love and miss it. As students, it is so necessary to keep learning through experiences and exploring, not only from textbooks and lecture slides. While that may not mean visiting the Great Barrier Reef for everyone, it could also mean going to see a landmark or exploring a new city. We live in an incredible world!
One of the best things about moving to the Southern hemisphere during a typically cold Midwest winter is touching down in the exact opposite season, though I definitely miss having to bundle up in order to go outside (not being sarcastic). I feel like I spend too much time starfished upon my bed with the fan on full blast as I sweat away in my air conditioner-less apartment. But I digress.
My first three weeks here in Rio were spent taking an intensive Portuguese course, building upon the foundation that I had constructed over 5 semesters of classes in Bloomington. Actually, I’m not sure if building upon is the right term, considering much of what I learned here immediately made much of the material I had committed to memory obsolete. Between different uses for tenses I had considered niche to being constantly told that a native speaker would never actually use that complicated conjugation I had spent weeks struggling with (which was often reflected in my course grade), the process of learning was more like being given the materials for construction and an idea of what the final product should look like and figuring out how all of the phrases should be cobbled together to obtain something near fluency. I’m still learning new words and structures every day, even though I haven’t had a formal class in almost a month.
That’s right, I’m in the middle of my first (of two, considering I am staying after classes end in June to backpack around South America before returning to Rio for the Olympics) summer vacation of 2016. Things got wild right off the bat, as just as classes ended Carnaval was beginning. Carnaval, for the uninitiated, is a giant, all-encompassing festival that lasts for what seems like an undetermined amount of time and completely takes over life in Brazil. You can walk out of your door towards the sound of music to find a group of a million plus costumed party goers had taken over the streets. The coordination of everyone knowing where to show up consistently surprised me, as I’d see the same people at ‘blocos’ across the city from one day to the next.
During Carnaval, the days blend together and I came out on the other side unsure of exactly what transpired. The adage “long days and short weeks” has never struck such a chord. G rated highlights from my own experience include a couple of nights spent in the sambodrome (the stadium for the massive samba school parades that could take up to 90 minutes apiece) until sunrise, swinging my hips and singing along with the reveling marchers, the opportunity I had to actually march alongside a youth school whose floats I had helped decorate, the Beatles themed bloco with classic Beatles hits infused with samba rhythms and intensity, and the many times I got swept up in a parade and succumbed to the energy all around.
After this period which can rightfully be described as insanity, I decided I needed a vacation from my vacation, so on I went to Buzios, a fishing village turned beach resort town popularized by a 1960s visit from Brigitte Bardot. I am typing this up right before I hop on another bus to continue taking advantage of this closing window before I have to get back in time for the beginning of the semester and my classes at PUC, my Brazilian university and the official reason I came to Rio.
I’ve always thought that studying abroad is as much about learning about yourself as it is learning about another culture and language. You can become proficient in a language without ever stepping outside your home, but it is stepping outside your comfort zone that allows you to become fluent. Cultural experiences outside of the classroom allow you to get to know the true essence of what it means to be a ‘carioca’ (or whatever locals are called wherever you decide to go), and interactions with these locals are what will connect you back to this period of your life long after you get back to the real world. Anyways, that’s the justification I’m giving myself, off on my next adventure to prove to myself that toucans are in fact real animals and not just some prank animators have been pulling on me my whole life.