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A Brief Summary of Five Months Abroad »

“Everybody has a backstory. For example, though I am currently living in France and adapting myself to the ways of the French, I still like listening to alt-j and watching Parks and Rec while I get ready to walk the half a mile to school each morning.

Everyone I am encountering here also has a backstory. I only know them in the context of this country and these strange new habits, but I occasionally see pieces of their former selves fuse with the new. A small piece of identity worms its way into our conversations and suddenly its like a light bulb has gone off somewhere far away, reminding them of the self they left on the other side of the Atlantic. I see them watching it happen to me too, as I point out a store that reminds me of someone back home and provide a lighthearted anecdote as context. It gets a bit jumbled sometimes, but that’s generally what happens when you hold two pieces of your life together and hope they become one.

Much in the same way, Lille (and, consequently, France) has a backstory too. You can see it in the cracks snaking between the cobblestones and the paint chips flaking from buildings. I have been here for a long time, the city seems to whisper as you drift through its worn streets. I have been here, and here I will continue to be.

Today, though, the city didn’t need to whisper because its inhabitants did all the talking.

When we arrived downtown, we stumbled right out of the metro and into a crowd of people. They were all dressed in black and many of them held signs reading the same thing: Je suis Charlie. 

It’s not often that you see a group of people who both share a common goal and carry identical signs. But here they were marching before us—sometimes silent, sometimes clapping in unison, always united. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and I both felt privileged to be witnessing such an event and like a child trying to sit at the adult table during a family holiday.

In this tumultuous and tragic time for French history, I feel it is very important for me to remember where my place is. I am just a visitor to this country. I, shamefully, do not know nearly enough about its history or politics to truly understand what’s going on. I can only take my experiences and hypothesize about that which I do not know. But I can also be respectful.

I am attending classes with both other exchange students and French students. I navigate the metro with a tinge of green in my cheeks as I try to act like I know what I’m doing. I eat at creperies and try new foods and learn to recognize food labels at the grocery store. I drop whole loaves of fresh bread into puddles after walking half a mile home from a poorly timed and very rainy grocery run. I go to the discothèques and bop around cluelessly as those around me belt out a song I don’t know and wonder why it’s followed by an American pop song from the 80’s. I sleep through the night or I don’t sleep at all and I come in each day and feel more at ease when I see the fifty-five photos I’ve plastered to my walls. And even just one week later I couldn’t be more different from the person I started as on the other side of the security gate.

But in the end, I am still just a guest in this city, treading carefully over eggshells that have already been broken. And I know that some of those pieces have already worked their way through my shoes and flesh and stumbled into my soul. But I think that’s the beauty of this whole adventure. Because isn’t that kind of what I wanted in the first place?”

When I first wrote this blog post on January 10th, I only had an inkling of an idea just how much going abroad would impact me. But the sentiments I expressed here do, I think, a good job of summarizing what study abroad was like for me. It was simultaneously the most difficult and thrilling adventure I have ever been privileged enough to experience, and this is in large part because of the people and places I encountered along the way. But it is also because of the parts of myself that I uncovered through my travels, and how those parts of myself fused with the new things I was discovering to create an irreplaceable experience and, ultimately, a new version of me (pictured below).


Accidentally Hiking Up a Mountain »

During my very long winter break, I expressed a desire to my family to go on a hike, like we used to when we went on vacation.  Once in Japan, I decided to act on this desire (just without my family) and had what was probably the single most enjoyable day on my entire trip (almost certainly the most beautiful).

This year, May 2-6 (Saturday-Wednesday) was Golden Week in Japan, a string of holidays that everyone uses to go on vacation and go sightseeing and such.  At TIU, we, too, have school off, so some of the Japan Studies Program (JSP) students organized trips for each day we had off.  Sadly, only two of us ended up on Saturday’s trip, but it was fun none the less.  We went to Kamakura, an area approximately southwest of Tokyo and Yokohama, for some sightseeing and hiking.

We started at the beach!  I was wearing my tennis shoes, so I had to walk very carefully to keep sand from getting in them.  Even so, it was nice to be able to visit a beach.  From there we turned around to follow the crowd from the train station to the major sites.  Kamakura is filled with temples and shrines, with numerous hiking trails connecting them.



See that giant Buddha?  You can go inside it for 20 yen (about 20 cents), which was quite the deal.  It was really interesting, but pretty cramped.  You can see how it was put together and where the head was reinforced later.  We also visited a shrine that you had to pass through a cave to get through.  If you washed your money there, apparently it was supposed to multiply.  The two of us couldn’t figure out the proper procedure for washing and blessing the money, so we did not do it in order to avoid the risk of doing something disrespectful.  We tried watching what others were doing, but the procedural order was very unclear.

It should be noted that there was not much of a plan ahead of time.  We had looked into which sites we wanted to see, and upon arrival in Kamakura, got some tourist maps and plotted out a route that would let us see the most in the time we had.  Perhaps, had we done more research, we would have known to get off the train at Kita-Kamakura and then hike to Kamakura and not the other way around.  As it was, we hiked up a mountain, passing better planners going the other way on a fairly regular basis.  On the other hand, the view became more and more impressive.  It was extremely gratifying to be able to turn around and see just how far we had come.

It was a wonderful day.  It was sunny and warm, but the hike was mostly through the forest.  The air in the forest was cool, it was shady, and the path was adventurous at times.  Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I have always been surrounded by trees, so getting to see the slight differences is flora was interesting.  For instance, we stumbled across small bamboo groves here and there.

Because many of the temples and shrines close up about 4, we ended up having time to go back to Yokohama for a bit of sightseeing there, as well.

We got off at Yokohama station, and then walked between the various areas we wanted to visit.  Luckily, a few of the specialty stores turned out to be in the same mall.  I made a few purchases and was given a ticket to a free concert the following Monday, so this was not my last trip out to Yokohama.  I was glad that I had already made the trip once before with a friend, because I ended up going by myself that Monday, despite the length of the trip.

That day was the perfect balance of planned and spontaneous.  We went in knowing what we wanted to see, but not how we would see it.  We figured it out as we went along, which made it feel relaxed without being inefficient.  We were met with surprises (like hiking up a mountain) and what we expected (the Big Buddha).  It was a great day!



A Snapshot From My Life Abroad »

At the end of last month, my friend Mariah and I flew off to London for nine days of seriously, SERIOUSLY jam-packed exploring. We saw Buckingham Palace, celebrated the arrival of a very royal baby (free flags! old men dancing!), ate fish and chips, crossed Abbey Road, investigated (har, har) Baker Street, and did the grand viewing of The London Eye, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben (as well as both Regent’s and Hyde Park) — I’m now confident I can navigate nearly any subway or metro system, regardless of language. The bus stations didn’t always appear where we expected them to, but the buses have two stories so you win some and lose some, I guess. We saw the Van Goghs at the National Gallery, and marveled at the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our last day was spent wandering the famous Oxford Street, trying not to break the bank, all the while snacking on street waffles and milkshakes.

We also attended a rather fancy-looking club (for free!) which was a neat experience that I probably will never do again! But, much to Mariah’s utmost joy, a few of Beyonce’s backup dancers happened to be there. Who knew?

We did so much walking that at the end of each day, my feet hurt like never before, and since the trip, my left ankle hasn’t quite been the same. I’m not yet physically equipped for such a fast-paced, demanding city, though I loved every minute there. London is quite the shift from mostly-quiet and comparatively-small Aalborg (I called Aalborg small once and I was laughed at by a few Danes — my apologies, I come from an even smaller city, so it’s ok, I can say things like that). It’s a massive international hub, and I heard tons of languages. Despite the (still shocking) ability I had there to read every sign and advertisement perfectly, I felt like I was in many different places at once.

We returned to rainy, chilly Denmark, met with equally dismal (but not all bad) work on our upcomoing project, which is due in three days. It’s hard to believe May is coming to an end already, and I have less than three weeks left abroad. Mariah and I did manage to make it over to Copenhagen for 2 days, which was a nice look into the big city life of Denmark. We visited Tivoli and rode a bunch of rides with screaming schoolchildren, saw the wild district of Christiania, viewed the Rosenborg Castle, explored Nyhavn for that quintessential Copenhagen canal-shot, and wrapped up our visit with some photos with “Den Lille Havfrue” (The Little Mermaid) herself. I also had a tattooed Danish man pierce my left ear with a large needle (intentionally, I paid him — this was no act of wild Danish rage against me). All in two days’ work.

Finally, yesterday was the famous Aalborg Karneval (the largest Carnival in all of Nothern Europe) in which 200,000 people (locals and tourists alike) dress up and flood the streets, insanely drunk and ready to party all day and all night. And then some, probably. A few of my housemates and I woke up promptly at 8 AM, put on our costumes, cooked some breakfast, and by 9:30 that morning, as per true Danish tradition, we took horrible shots of this licorice vodka which seems to appear nearly everywhere in Denmark. I know you Danes love your licorice — but will never be ready for it, especially at nine in the morning. The day was nuts, and I lost my steam around 5 PM as my cat ears began to cascade off my head. Never have I seen so many people on the streets of Aalborg, and so many Aalborg-locals disobeying pedestrian traffic laws! It feels good to jaywalk, doesn’t it, guys? Come on. Everyone in London is doing it!

The sun is like, kind of here, but not often. I have gotten used to the grayness of it all, however, and am in for a rude awakening upon my imminent return to California.

I really will miss this charming little city I’ve had the privilege to call my home for four months, and the wonderful friends that have come along with it. I’m a bit sad to be packing up my room in the next week, folding up maps and somehow cramming everything back into my suitcase. But, fast approaching, I have a European reunion with Ryan, a quick trip to Barcelona, one last presentation to finish up my project, and, hopefully, a fast stop in Sweden. Then, I’ll be back on a plane to the states after a whirlwind of goodbyes — going from one life experience and onto the next is never an easy feat.

Czechmate »

The study abroad experience is often discussed between friends and strangers alike as the epitome of the college adventure. I landed in Prague with two guidebooks, and countless stories from UPCES alum about all the good times that were waiting for me in this post-iron curtain oasis. Though I headed into Prague with detailed instructions about where to find a decent burrito at 2am and a warning about my over friendly nature, I found myself running around Old Town like a chicken with my head cut off.

When I listened to my friends recount their time abroad they used language that brushed over the mundane, as if every minute was filled with pure ecstasy. Rather than question their enthusiasm, I drooled over every syllable and prepared for when my day would come.

I do not know if it was my over confidence – or just my inability to fully comprehend what my time in a new city, not knowing a lick of Czech, surrounded by complete strangers was going to be – but I found myself wildly overwhelmed. Luckily the time of utter insanity was fleeting and forgiving, as I made friends, learned to successfully count to 25 in Czech, and stopped grinning at strangers.

I accidentally bought buttermilk twice, got lost trying to find school on three separate occasions, and ate an obscene amount of fried cheese. I also had my breath taken away by the beauty of the city, went to a club where Rihanna filmed a music video, laughed uncontrollably, mastered public transportation, and all around was welcomed by such an incredible place.

Prague is in a time of transition, with a population still processing the aftermath of communism while simultaneously opening their arms to the complex modernization that is in full swing. It is a metropolis and a haven, with a rich history and gracious population.

I expected my relationship with Prague to be love at first sight, and though the city is very easy on the eyes, it has been a slow process, as everyday was met with new trials and triumphs. I feel confident saying, on the cusp of my six-month anniversary with the Czech Republic, that I am very blessed to have spent a semester in Prague’s sweet embrace.


Screen Shot 2015-09-09 at 2.11.34 PMI took this photo in Derry, a town in Northern Ireland which is still under British rule. Ireland has been effected by political troubles linked to a conflict between Irish nationalists who want their own free state (the Republic of Ireland) and British loyalists who want to remain under British rule (Northern Ireland). This conflict has persisted since Irish independence in the 1920s, though things have been mostly politically stable since the 1990s. There are still memorials and monuments dedicated to the conflict throughout Ireland, and finding these monuments in the Irish quarter of Derry was really striking.

Throughout the town there were murals and posters for various justice issues, including of course Irish nationalism, the Spanish civil war, Palestinian statehood, feminism, and so on. It was really powerful walking through town and seeing the cultural attitude for social justice memorialized.

My time in Ireland was not always characterized this way. There was a lot of casual antisemitism and Islamophobia in everyday conversation, as well as overt racism. Ireland is a very static society. Most people in the Irish Republic are white Catholics. There is a national sentiment for social justice, which was definitely in tension with casual or unintentional bigotry.

Still, Ireland is recovering from decades of their own struggle to maintain freedom after centuries of British rule, and hopefully that cultural value will continue to guide politics in Ireland to a more just environment.

Fun Times in Finland (Study Abroad Experience) »

To feed a Reindeer from my hand is an experience that I will always remember. How many people can say they have taken a selfie with Reindeer?  A experience that can only happen if someone treks up to Lapland.

To feed a Reindeer from my hand is an experience that I will always remember. How many people can say they have taken a selfie with Reindeer? A experience that can only happen if someone treks up to Lapland.

Friends and Mountains »

This photo was snapped by a fellow Willamette student during my favorite weekend abroad. We had set out on a mission to climb Mt. Cook, however the weather was not in our favor. By the time we drove the five hours to get to the trailhead, the weather at the hut was so bad that no one was going up. We reluctantly decided to give up on Mt. Cook and headed to Wanaka, a small town on the South Island of New Zealand. Even though it was forecasted to pour, we were determined to get out and hike to a hut for the night. We went into the ranger station and asked for any hut that was open and they pointed us in the direction of the Breast Hill Track. It ended up being one of the most beautiful hikes I did during my time abroad. We were alone on the track and got to spend the night in the hut with just our group. Playing cards all night and getting up to watch the sunrise was an absolutely wonderful surprise and showed me that even when literally nothing goes as planned, everything can still work out! abroad

The Fragility of Life »

While in Ireland I had the privilege to visit a place called Inishmore, otherwise known as one of the Aran Islands. It is a remote island located near Galway, Ireland and while there I toured a medieval stone fort perched on the edge of a 100 meter high cliff. I took this photo while lying on my stomach, overlooking the edge of the cliff straight down to the water. During our tour of the island our tour guide told us that one year a German exchange student fell off that cliff and died. That moment was pivotal for me as I leaned over and contemplated the fragility of my own life. Studying abroad can be illuminating in many ways but for me it made me realize how fast life can go and how important it is to live the best way you can, every single day. I realized as I was staring down into the depths that had previously claimed a student just like me that I hadn’t been living up to my full potential. Often I allow myself to get bogged down with little problems on a day to day basis that in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter. It made me reconsider what was really important in my life. Relationships and the people within them are what really matter. At that moment I was cold, wet, and fairly hungry but I took a second to think about how lucky I was to even have this opportunity to be in a foreign country with wonderful new people and the chance to form new, lasting relationships that I otherwise never would have had. Studying abroad was an invaluable experience and I came out of it with a new lust for life itself. It’s moments like those, where you’re dangling over the edge of a fatal drop, when you realize just what you’re made of. FullSizeRender


This image shows Grenoble, the beautiful Alpine city in the Southeastern part of France, that I spent 5 months living in. This photo was taken about a month after living there, after overcoming all the hardships of the first month abroad. In this photo, I am comfortable and happy. I climbed a mountain for a breathtaking view and the experience abroad made me feel more grateful, confident, and alive.

This image shows Grenoble, the beautiful Alpine city in the Southeastern part of France, that I spent 5 months living in. This photo was taken about a month after living there, after overcoming all the hardships of the first month abroad. In this photo, I am comfortable and happy. I climbed a mountain for a breathtaking view and the experience abroad made me feel more grateful, confident, and alive.

The Fight for Equality in a Deeply Catholic Country »

On May 22, 2015, Ireland became the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.  There are so many stories to tell about this event.

The date for the voting was announced in January or February. Initial polls showed a 74% approval rating for legalizing same sex marriage. If I remember correctly, these polls were of general public opinion, rather than just those registered to vote. This is because, in Ireland, very few people, especially people my age, are registered to vote. Perhaps it’s a result of the years of colonialism that still impact the culture today, a culture where the government does not serve you and it’s shameful to be involved in government. Perhaps it’s the fact that so many people intend to move to America anyway that they don’t bother to register to vote (Ireland doesn’t have absentee voting). Whatever it is, the fact remained that very few of these approving and tolerant people would actually turn up to vote. It would be a loss of apathy.

The concentrated panic began. Everyone had seen the polls and everyone knew that there would be people who wouldn’t show up just because they were so confident it would pass. There was a huge push to get people registered. Newspapers carried articles reading, ‘whichever way the vote goes, this will be a victory for Democracy,’ because this seemed to be the issue to finally get people involved in the voting process. I knew people who were telling all their friends ‘if you don’t go out and vote, we are no longer friends.’ We went canvassing door to door, hitting the neighborhoods in Galway, like Woodquay and Salthill, spreading information about when was the last day to register and offering up information about the movement.

The Catholic Church was urging people to vote no. Few people my age listened to them. After the scandals at the Vatican and the information still trickling out about the Magdalene Laundries, a lot of people are disillusioned with the Church. The Anglican Church was urging people to vote yes, but it’s only a very small proportion of the population that identifies as that denomination. All the political parties (and yes, even the more conservative ones) were urging people to vote yes. This includes Fine Gael, a conservative party whose sign, in Irish, is shown below. That didn’t seem to sway people much either, given how little most people were involved in politics.

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Then started the nastiness with each side tearing down the signs of the other (with, of course, people only accusing the yes vote on this. Thanks, respectability politics). Some people tried to anonymously blackmail people on the yes side into silence.

We continued on, canvassing through the neighborhoods of Galway, getting abused and applauded in turn. One day, as happens often in Galway, it started hailing. And not just a little bit of soft hail. Large hail, blowing with the strong winds that had just picked up, bruising us, exposed outside strangers’ houses. As everyone frantically ducked to try futilely to find cover and to protect the flyers we were handing out, we suddenly glanced up, and saw the double rainbow filling the sky. I decided then and there that whatever the church said, clearly G-d approved of what we were doing.

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Despite the college students who remained apathetic and the other students who refused to open the door to us because they thought we were inspectors and the homophobes in their various incarnations, the referendum finally passed, with a 62% yes vote. I was in the middle of the street in Cork City when I heard this, and collapsed without delay right in the middle of the street. Roscommon, one of the most rural and conservative counties in Ireland, was the only county which had voted no (51-49).

These events had taken their toll on everyone, especially those who spent their evenings and emotional energy canvassing, effectively coming out of the closet to total strangers each time, not knowing what the response would be. Bi, pan, and ace people had to continue to lie about their identities in order to be affiliated with the campaign, making equal marriage an easier pill to swallow for the straight population. This caused no small amount of frustration for myself and others who were forced to conceal our true sexualities under the guise of being gay or lesbian. I was just lucky that, however the vote turned out, I could always go home to California where (after a long hard fight which was begun by this same ‘no’ vote) I was sure to be able to marry whomever I loved. My friends in Ireland had a lot more riding on it than I did. Even so, when the news came in that it had passed, I knew what my friends in other parts of the country must be feeling, because I had felt it when Prop. 8 was finally repealed. It means so much to me that they now have the same rights as I do, living in California.

It was a long and intense process and after everyone helped each other through it, about a week later the Irish government quietly passed a law allowing trans people to legally change their gender on their birth certificate. The only thing that had prevented them from doing so before was the fact that same sex marriage was illegal. With marriage equality, trans people could legally change their gender while married without creating an illegal same sex marriage.

Ireland is changing so incredibly quickly, and I’m so thankful I was able to be there at such an important time.

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