Indiana University Overseas Study

Archive for the ‘Cultural Experiences’ Category

Immediate Anxieties and Long-Term Goals

Christy Margeson - Nagoya, Japan

As the rollercoaster of a year that was 2016 neared its end, sweeping without pause into the next, just as swiftly did my living environment evolve. During the second week of January, I moved out of the dorm and in with my first-ever host family. Commuting to class is inevitably more cumbersome—an hour-long commute via train, compared to my previous two-minute walk to campus—but I would wager that those who have lived with a host family would almost unanimously agree that lengthy commutes are a small price to pay for such a unique, intimate cultural immersion.

I’ll be the first to admit that it was quite intimidating moving into a Japanese-only (very little to no falling back on English) household with a family I had never met before—I still sometimes find myself clamming up at the dinner table when they speak a little too quickly, constantly doubting my listening abilities. However, even after my short time here, I’m already finding myself more deeply immersed in Japanese culture than I could have imagined while living in the dorm.

I sometimes watch Japanese variety shows, for instance, with my host family after dinner; these programs are simultaneously ridiculous, and so quintessentially Japanese—as well as a convenient way to stay up-to-date on Japan’s pop culture—that I’m not sure how I got by without watching them before. Some other perks that I’ve come to appreciate are my host family’s comfy 炬燵(kotatsu) during this cold winter—which is basically a low wooden table covered by a futon and table top with an electric heater underneath—as well as being able to enjoy two delicious meals prepared daily by my generous host mother. These are only a few examples of the benefits of homestay. Moreover, and possibly most importantly, I’m experiencing cultural exchange and language practice in a warm, friendly environment every day. From what little I’ve tasted of the homestay lifestyle so far, I’m finding that it truly is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for which I’m extremely grateful.

炬燵 (kotatsu)

Of course, there are aspects of my freedom that I had in the dorm that I don’t have with my host family—I am living in someone’s home, after all, and have to abide by certain rules. However, despite my anxiety about speaking only Japanese at home, I feel as though I’m beginning to leave shallow waters, wading out into the deep end and embracing immersion more fully. I hope that if I’m able to grab my trepidation by the horns, I’ll be better able to achieve my long-term goals with the language.

Beyond the immediate benefits and anxieties involved with my switch to a homestay, I’m also interested in exploring the idea of long-term goals for foreign language learning. I can only speak from personal experience, holding onto the glimmer of hope that others might be able to relate, at least a little.

To me, language acquisition might just be one of the most mysterious, fascinating concepts I’ve ever encountered. Each small triumph when communicating in your foreign language of choice can make you feel ready to conquer the world; contrarily, a single mishap or confused interaction can leave you despairing, wondering if all of this mental labor is really worth it. I realize that this probably seems pretty melodramatic, but when you’ve been studying a foreign language for as long as I have, it becomes easy to question whether you’ll ever actually, finally reach your long-term goals.

If you were to ask any scholar about foreign language learning, they would undoubtedly reassure you that the benefits stemming from studying language are plentiful. According to an article by Anne Merritt of The Telegraph, foreign language learning provides a plethora of unexpected mental benefits, such as improved memory, decision-making skills, perception, etc.

However, when it comes to the actual study of language as an adult—especially when this is added to the attempt to simultaneously acquisition not only with the language, but also with its culture and people—these long-term benefits can often be overshadowed by the overwhelming mental strain of it all.

While I’ll admit that there’s always a small part of me wondering whether I’ll actually feel satisfied with my language skills, there’s also an equally strong part of me that’s excited to watch myself grow with Japanese. I’m coming to realize that when it comes to language learning, there will always be good and bad days; days where everything you want to say actually makes its way out of your brain and into spoken, grammatically-coherent sentences, when communicating in that language feels like one of the most natural things in the world, and days where you feel extremely frustrated with yourself and your surroundings, wanting to crawl away and hide when you botch a conversation with someone, or hear yourself mispronouncing something or saying something completely wrong, but somehow feel unable to correct yourself in real-time.

This past semester has proven to be one of the most difficult of my life. Of course, it goes without saying that the classes were challenging—my Japanese classes in particular were very demanding of my time, energy, and mental stamina. However, I don’t believe that one is ever done learning a subject, and my study of Japanese is no exception. Wading deeper still into cultural immersion, I find myself finally in waters so high that my feet no longer touch the floor—which leaves me no other option but to keep swimming.

Christy Margeson

Unexpected Lessons

Rachel Larsen - Copenhagen

When traveling, there are some things you expect to make an impact. Learning the language will be hard, but have a great payoff. Learning the city will make you feel accomplished. The sights will take your breath away. But the best parts of study abroad are the ones you never saw coming. For me, this is Ian, Louis, and Kenneth. I will never forget the hospitality, kindness, and hygge that they have shown me and leaving them has actually caused me more tears than I would ever admit to them.

I met these boys at a restaurant-bar combination in the building I’ve been living in. “Up Wonder” is a cute diner on the first floor of the building while “Down Wonder” hosts the (more…)

We’re Halfway There!

Rachel Larsen - Copenhagen

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…)

Sachsenhausen: Past and Present

Sarah Monnier - Berlin, Germany

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.

Guard tower

The main guard tower for Sachsenhausen is at the center of a spoke-like arrangement of barracks. Built in 1936, the camp was meant to serve as the ideal model for later camps to follow.

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.

guard tower and fenceline

The outer perimeter of the camp is bordered by a combination of barbed wire, electric fences and a cement wall. The “neutral zone” served as a death strip, for anyone who crossed its threshold or was forced to cross into it was shot immediately.

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.

labor camp entrance

The entrance to many labor camps of the Third Reich bore the same slogan “ARBEIT MACHT FREI” – works sets you free. The saying was increasingly insidious, as most prisoners would be “freed” only through death after exhaustion from forced labor.

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.

Sarah Monnier - exploring the history and memory of Berlin

O’ Captain, My Captain: Sailing the Isefjord

Rachel Larsen - Copenhagen

I just had the most amazing opportunity that I will never forget. Myself and 18 new friends traveled to Isefjord, a small freshwater fjord connecting Kategat (the cat canal) to mainland Hoelbæk of Denmark. We met in Copenhagen and took a scenic train ride through rural Denmark at a beautiful 7 am. We walked through the town of Holbæk, known for one of the oldest hotels in Denmark and for the beautiful ports that host many of the country’s documented wooden ships.

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In Denmark, wooden sailing ships are not only a living piece of history, but they are a prized possession that requires much responsibility. To be a licensed wooden ship in Denmark (one that belongs to an illustrious club, that is), there are rules that dictate everything, including how the deck must be washed and how the sails must be sewn (criss-cross seams fail a ship upon inspection).

Once we were on the boat, safety demonstrations began. We put all of our stuff down below where there was enough sleeping rooms for 23. Soon, we began leaving Holbæk for Hundested, or “dog’s place.” The temperature was warm for Denmark, but the sea breeze was perfect. Kenneth told me he had almost never seen such a perfect Danish day for sailing.

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Out on the front of the boat, rigging was set to help hoist the sails. Between the 3 of us, we were able to shimmy out past a net, onto the beams beyond the boat to raise the sails in a windy adventure. We saw jellyfish go by underneath us at a comfortable 5 knots. We sailed for an entire day before landing in port, the beach of Hundested. It was a beautiful small city, one that most of the crew was pretty familiar with. Kenneth, Jonas, and Johnny showed us around and let us have a great time around the city, teaching us new words and Danish and laughing at our all-together Americanness.

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Every day, different members of the crew cooked a meal and did the dishes. In Denmark, customs say that if you make the meal, you eat last, inviting your guests to partake first. While we weren’t used to this, the first mate was quite strict. That being said, the fruit here in Denmark is the best you will ever have. Denmark doesn’t use preservatives like other countries, meaning the food goes bad faster here, but tastes must fresher. We had bread fresh from the bakery in both ports. And, we learned to make a tenderloin-sausage stew that was absolutely fantastic! Everything we had on the boat was good!

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While many of the sights were beautiful and amazing, easily the best part of this trip was the crew. The captain, Markin, was the quietest, but one of the funniest. He obviously loved our energy and laughed at our jokes and bad dance skills on the boat, but never spoke to the guests directly. Christina, the first mate, was a delight. She was the person who helped us all cook and taught us the tradition of logkake, a layer cake that is made for celebrations in Denmark. She also was dating the captain, which she explained happened during a 2 month excursion to Spain.

Johnny was the funny guy. He had been on the ship the longest as a crew member and loved the seas. He was very open and loved to talk to us all, though his English was spotty. That made Kenneth, a 27-year-old student on the ship, even more fun. Kenneth was as fluent in English, no doubt about it. He only needed to look up a few words during the entire trip. He was an amazing artist and really enjoyed spending time with us.

Finally, “micro-man” Jonas was the most reserved about the group. Jonas was only 19 and was a student in the sailing school. He was very wary of us when we started, but he warmed up pretty quickly. We got him to laugh, though his English was the worst. Not bad, at all, but definitely a challenge.

The crew really took us in and taught us the meaning of hygge. Hygge is the traditional moral of the Danes, a way of life that incorporates comfort, compassion, and welcome into their lives. I can’t imagine being able to recreate the feeling of watching the sunset on a small boat with the comfort of new friends.

Rachel Larsen - exploring collaboration in STEM & study abroad

Bloomington Meets Berlin

Sarah Monnier - Berlin, Germany

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.

Sarah and friend eating döners.

My treasure hunt partner, Greer Brown and I enjoyed the task of finding the best döner in Berlin. Döner is becoming one of the most popular foods in the city, behind currywurst.

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.

Sarah posing with Ampelmann

While on our way to the Reichstag, we discovered a giant statue of the Ampelmännchen, the crossing guard symbol of East Germany. Affectionately called Ampelmann, it is one of the few symbols left over from the communist German Democratic Republic.

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.

German graffiti on wall

This may not look like much but there are numerous walls in the Reichstag covered in it. The graffiti was filtered by the Russian and German governments when the decision was made to preserve it, first removing any pieces that were explicitly violent to the people of Germany.

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.

Sarah Monnier - exploring the history and memory of Berlin

The Perfectly Imperfect Moments

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Studying Abroad is made up of a series of moments. Some are good and some are bad, some are fun and some are tough, but each is equally essential in creating the formative and unforgettable experience you are sure to have.

In an earlier post, I discussed a defining moment for me: one that gave me the strength and courage to know that I was in fact capable of handling most anything I was sure to be faced with—not only throughout my journey abroad, but also in life.

Today I would like to talk about a different type of moment one experiences while studying abroad. The “perfectly imperfect” moment is what I like to call it.

Everyone comes into study abroad with a certain idea about how it is all going to go. They imagine pretending to hold up the Eiffel Tower, recreating the Beatle’s photo on Abbey Road, and, like me, staring in awe at the ancient and mystical Stonehenge as the sun sets beautifully behind it.

The ironic and actually wonderful reality of studying abroad is that none of these moments actually happen like you imagine. Not one.

This is not, however, a bad thing. Quite the contrary, because the moments that you do end up having are far better than you could ever have imagined. Why? Because they are yours.

For me, my perfectly imperfect moment came when I was trying to fulfill my dream of seeing Stonehenge up close and personal. The group I was with had planned a five-day trip to England, and set aside one of those days to journeying out to see Stonehenge.

We made it to the little town of Salisbury by train and decided to grab a quick bite to eat before setting to work figuring out how to get to Stonehenge from there.

We were a little worried when we discovered the visitors center had already closed for the day, but continued on, confident we could find a bus that would take us there. When we got to the bus station and began looking through the maps, two locals approached us.

Long story short, they explained that Stonehenge had closed twenty minutes prior, and that the last bus had just left for the historic site. They offered their condolences and kept on walking. Determined to still see the mystical rock structure, one way or another, we decided to ask a taxi driver if he could take us there.

That is where the adventure really began.

The taxi driver who’s cab we got into could not have been more fun or delightful. He explained to us that he would be able to take us along the highway next to Stonehenge and would slow down as much as he could for us, but that that was the best he could do.

Charmed by the driver, and excited about the prospect of seeing Stonehenge with our own eyes, no matter how far way, we agreed and began the journey.

I can’t remember the last time I smiled that much and that big for such a long time. Our cab driver should really be a full-time comedian.

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When we finally saw Stonehenge from the cab window, I will never forget the overwhelming happiness I felt in the moment.

No we weren’t up close and personal, no the sun wasn’t setting, and no it wasn’t the image I had in mind of experiencing Stonehenge, but I would not trade that moment for the world. I wouldn’t trade the adventure, the laughter, and the feeling of accomplishment we felt sitting in that cab, seeing Stonehenge. It was utterly and absolutely perfectly imperfect.

So those of you planning to study abroad, by all means, dream away. Fill your head with fantasies, but be prepared to have your fantasies surpassed with perfectly imperfect realities.

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