It’s Decided—Amsterdam is the Best City on Earth

November 15, 2017

When the sun sets on Amsterdam and its rays reflect off the rain-soaked pavement, the city streets turn into paths of sheer light. So today after the day-long rain, the sunlight reflecting off the pavement became so bright I could hardly see the sidewalk in front of me without squinting my eyes nearly shut. That didn’t help so much since I was exploring the city by bike. But despite the potential crash-factor, cycling in Amsterdam has been one of the most memorable moments of my time studying abroad so far.

IMG_4319.PNGI’m here as a tradition with the women’s ultimate Frisbee team. Each year, the juniors who are abroad meet in one city in Europe. Our job while here is to send an email and welcome letter to the freshmen joining the team as well as take pictures in our traditional team poses. I remember seeing the pictures from the last set of juniors meeting in Europe and waiting in eager anticipation of the day I would be able to venture off abroad and continue the traditions myself. It’s certainly a reminder that time passed has passed quickly.

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On the first day, my friends and I biked around to get a feel for the city and its culture. The city is much calmer than Paris yet still carries the same level of importance. It’s a city for business people and entrepreneurs, but it’s also open to people of various walks of life. We stayed at a youth hostel in the center of the city, and I heard Spanish, English (of the non-American brand), and French—but little Dutch spoken. Everyone here generally speaks English, and if I didn’t know any better I would’ve thought I was in an Anglophone country. This country is also very open with its values, so many things are legal here that aren’t legal in the US. It makes for a bit of a culture shock, but is interesting nonetheless.

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I can’t forget the architecture! After I got to Paris and did some traveling to other cities in Europe, I got it in my head that all cities are more or less the same. I’ve see a lot of the Haussmann architecture, which is virtually the only kind of building in Paris. Amsterdam, however, is something different altogether. It’s more colorful, quirky, and reflects the light-hearted spirit of the city. Some buildings are lopsided, some seem to be missing infrastructure altogether, some of them have colorful facades, and all of them have dizzyingly steep staircases. There are also canals and tunnels all throughout the city. It seems like a theme park in some ways.

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The second day, we spent the day visiting museums. We made our way to art museums as well as a heavenly cheese museum. The most memorable of these museums, for me, was the Anne Frank house. I’ve always had an interest in 20th century Europe with a particular interest in WWII history. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to study in Europe—to live in and be surrounded by historical artifacts. Visiting these sites of history is also a must for me every time I visit a new city. I visited Dachau a few weeks ago and now get the chance to visit the former hiding place of the world’s most beloved child author.

As I walked up the steps (steep ones at that) into the former hiding place of the Frank and Van Pels family, the Secret Annex, I felt transported into history. As I walked into Anne’s bedroom the original posters were plastered on the wall, the signs next to them explaining that it was her attempt to make the room seem happier. I had the chance to read some of her diary, and it’s unfathomable to think that a girl, who had been locked away in a house and repulsed by her society, could have thought what she did at her age. But her writing is still relatable; she was a child and had the same impulses and desires of a child. Nevertheless, she spoke with a profound command on her life and the lessons she learned having faced the prospect of death. This museum is a beautiful tribute to an even more beautiful young girl, and, although I didn’t get a chance to capture any pictures, I highly encourage visiting to see it for yourself.

I’m writing this while sitting in the airport. The flight back to Paris is only an hour long, the brevity of which is taking some getting used to. In the states, flying from Richmond to home for me takes six hours and one layover. But that’s also what I appreciate about being in Europe; another historical artifact or another amazing city or mountain range is just a hop, skip, and jump away. I’m not sure where I’ll go next (because finals are coming up, and I have to buckle down to prepare), but hopefully I’ll make it out one more time before I head back to the States for the New Year. It’s almost over! I can hardly believe it.

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A la prochaine,

Jess

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Jess en France: Journeying Outside of Paris

November 10, 2017

It’s been a few weeks since school has started and I’m eager to see more of France. Paris is wonderful but France is as beautiful as its regions are diverse in what they have to offer.  My university has a student association called Stop and Go, and they organized a group trip to the Champagne region of France, where we traveled between the towns of Reims, Ay, and Épernay. It’s a good opportunity to see more of France and experience its culture outside of the Parisian bubble.

We first travelled to Reims, which seemed deserted in relativity to Paris. I tend to forget that Paris is one of the more populated cities in Europe and attracts millions of tourists each year. So coming to the countryside brought me to the realization that I haven’t heard silence or seen smaller crowds of people in over a month. It was a much needed break that I didn’t know I needed. The lack of massive crowds made navigating the town and visiting tourist-attractions much easier. The first night I visited the Reims Cathedral, which is a High Gothic-style Roman Catholic church built in 1211. In 816, the first king of France, Louis I, was crowned at the cathedral, and almost every successive king since has held his coronation rituals there as well. I spent a few hours admiring its architectural and historical significance and felt almost in personal audience with the cathedral given how empty the town was.

The next day we made our way to Ay and then onto Épernay, where we walked alongside the undulating hills of wineries that seemed to stretch into every direction on the horizon. We followed a river for a while on our way to Chateau Thierry, and, of course, there were swans wading alongside us. At the chateau, our group had climbed to the top to get a better view of the valley, which, despite needing to climb what seemed like a mile of stairs, proved to be the highlight of my day. The sun was sitting above our heads, getting ready to set, and had lit up the extensive fields of grapes all across Épernay. The traditional French buildings of the city juxtaposed with the extensive fields of champagne grapes looked like a sliver of heaven.

This was my first excursion outside of Paris, and the trip was made awesome by the people who organized it. It was my first chance to test out of my language skills (although quite honestly I was a bit shy to say too much), and it was also a good opportunity to make some French friends. The next trip Stop and Go is planning is coming up soon, and I’ll be sure to document it if I join them in the coming days.


Jess en France: Church-Hopping in Paris

November 5, 2017

I’m finally on break and have the opportunity to take the walking tour of Paris I’ve been wanting to do for a while. This morning I set out for a neighborhood called Le Marais. This part of Paris is well-known for its typical Parisian-like architecture (and most importantly its amazing falafel vendors). I’ll start walking from there and use the River Seine as a guide to get me from one point of Paris to another. I’ve got some bucket-list items I’m looking to tick off today.

Just a quick side-note: I ran into another UR student on the metro visiting Paris for the weekend, which is quite a lovely surprise seeing a familiar face.

I get off the metro and in the distance I hear the faint chime of church bells, and, given my new-found love for ecclesiastical Gothic architecture, that’s where I head first. The first church I enter is just finishing mass, so I don’t snap any photos. But like many churches in France, the high-vaulted ceilings are so high above they hardly seem tenable, and the architectural feat (of all these churches in general) seems all the less possible given the age in which most of them were built. The incense must’ve been burning for a while because the light field of smoke permeating throughout the cathedral gave the air an ethereal glow against the backdrop of its natural lighting. Unfortunately I’ve misplaced my notes and can’t provide you with a name of the church. But trust me it is stunning.

After leaving the church, I continue on the same road until I stumble upon Paroisse Saint-Paul Saint-Louis and it’s even more magnificent than the last. At this point my plans have already shifted from finding good brunch places around Paris to church-hopping down the Marais. I walk through the church and this time have a chance to take some pictures. The detailed carvings into the church façade, ceiling, and pillars probably have to be repaired frequently. This church was built in 1627 on the orders of Louis XIII of France, and its first mass was held in 1641 by cardinal Richelieu as well, so the church, like many others, is a historical landmark. I’m sure the maintenance on this building is a constant process, so it’s hard to believe it’s as accessible to the public as it is and still holds mass every Sunday. It’s incredible.

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On my way out of the church I run into another familiar face, this time from my abroad university. The world is feeling smaller and smaller.

In between Paroise Saint-Paul Saint-Louis, I run across the national archives. The entry is free for anyone under 25, so I walk in. Turns out that this archive houses one of the largest collections of archival documents in the world (casual), and the institution itself was established in 1790 (just after the birth of the United States)…it’s a testament to how old France is and the historical impact it already made prior to the formal realization of our country. The oldest document kept in this archive dates back to AD 625 and is a contractual confirmation of a land grant from the city of Paris to the Abbey of Saint-Denis. This document was recorded by King Clothar II, a king whose rule dates so far back I don’t remotely recognize the names of the populations he ruled. Maybe I should brush up on some more history.

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I continue down the street and find a large library with crepe stands all around. My first bucket list item: get a street crepe. I have a nutella-strawberry concoction that tastes heavenly (but unfortunately I forget to snap a picture—as always happens when food is placed in front of me). I keep walking until I hit my next bucket list item, which quite frankly happened by accident.

When buildings are under construction in Paris, which they often are given their age, the city places a large drape of some sort over the façade. I walk up to one of the buildings with a massive drape over its entire north-facing façade and decide to walk inside because I’m thinking it’s a church. I squeeze through a side door into a dark hallway (that’s only naturally lit) where I am handed a pamphlet about the German church choir performing there within the hour. Curiously enough, this is one of my bucket list items—to watch a choir-organ performance.

I look up from the pamphlet and find myself in Paroisse Saint-Eustache, and it is utterly massive and hauntingly beautiful. Just last night I was in the Notre Dame cathedral, but this church easily rivals its beauty. Because I’m just in time, I get a good seat in the front of the church where, for the next two hours, I listen to the haunting serenade of the choir and organ as it resonates throughout the entire cathedral.

(insert two pictures of Saint-Eustache—the biggest church and the picture of the organ pipes)

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It’s hard to believe that all these churches can exist together in a few mile radius of each other. But that’s what is incredible about Paris—it’s a modern city that, simultaneously, is visually saturated with centuries of French history.

I just got home and have started planning the rest of my week off. I’ve just spent $400 to go to the Palais Garnier for an opera and ballet performance next month, which is thankfully reimbursed by the OIE. (To any prospective student studying abroad, do take advantage of the $500 the OIE gives you to attend cultural events in your host country!). Tomorrow, I’ll be doing some more writing at a library in Paris called the Mazarine. And soon I’ll be planning a trip down to the south of France, hopefully in the Alps, where I’ll be hiking for the weekend. I’ll be sure to cover my adventures down there in the next post.

Stay tuned!

Jess


Jess en France: Annecy-le-Vieux (Annecy, the old)

November 5, 2017

I initially had a hard time finding a place to go for the latter half of my vacation. I had bounced between four or five different places until I landed on a town called Annecy, a small city dubbed the “Venice of France.” My friend mentioned it to me in passing, and, after looking at some photos, it took me about one minute to toss my other plans out the window and book a ticket to Annecy for Thursday. I found a great youth hostel in the mountains that’s only a twenty-five minute walk from the train station, which is also in the center of town. Logistically speaking, I found the perfect place to spend the rest of my week.

I didn’t exactly plan all my activities, because strict planning stresses me out more than it helps me organize, so I played it by ear and wandered the city until I found places of interest I’d want to spend the week visiting. And just like the pictures, the city of Annecy (and Annecy-le-Vieux, meaning the “old Annecy”) proved to be one of the most beautiful towns I’ve ever had the privilege of staying in.

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Annecy has a beautiful church that is in the constant process of restoration

It was late so I walked to my hostel and settled in. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a roommate, but I’ve always had a hope that my hostel roommate and I would become good friends and we’d go traveling together. And I guess the stars aligned today because after my roommate, Pascale arrived, we began planning the rest of our trip together.

The next day, we hopped in her car and drove up to Evian, which is the city where Evian water is sourced. It’s a beautiful town whose economy is driven by its (fancy) water industry. Because of its proximity to Geneva, Switzerland, I bought some Swiss chocolate and other gifts for my family. But considering how close we were to Geneva, we decided to head there anyway. We hit two countries in a matter of a few hours, something I don’t get to say often when I’m in the States.

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We wanted to head back to the hostel before sundown so we could scout out a place to hike for the next day. We found a place called the Plateau of Semnoz and decided we’d spend Saturday morning there hiking. Our hostel is on the same road that leads directly up the plateau, and, when we started up the next morning, we were faced with one of the most jaw-dropping views I have ever seen. As a backpacker, I live for views. I’ve hiked over several days and over many miles to find them. But quite honestly I had never seen anything quite like the views we had at the Plateau of Semnoz. Mont Blanc was visible in the distance and cut through the low-lying clouds descending into the valley in front of us. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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I write this post from the train station of Annecy and already feel nostalgic for this past weekend. From the small town, to the beautiful lake, to Geneva and Evian, to the unbelievable view from atop the plateau, and to the time spent with a new friend, I cannot begin to describe how wonderful a time I had here. It was also a great way to practice my French, as my roommate is a French citizen and also interested in bettering her own English. She invited me to come stay with her in her city, which I cannot wait to do. I’ll be sure to capture that in a blog post in the coming days.

A la prochain,

Jess


Jess en France: Working with Refugees

October 27, 2017

There is an amazing association at my university that is entirely student run and incredibly well organized. It’s called the Refugee Help Association. I went to their orientation, which was big enough to fill an entire lecture hall, and was impressed by how motivated and passionate the leading members were in making a difference in the lives of Paris’ refugee population. There are five main teams: Administration, Asylum Aid, Material Needs, French Lessons, and Social Activities. I am administrative coordinator for one of the five Material Needs teams.

Essentially, my team is composed of about ten people, and each week we have different tasks we have to complete. On the first week of the month, we have to email, call, or meet with different hotels or other businesses across Paris and ask for any toiletries they may be able to offer us. We put together care packages on the second week, and, on the third, we distribute these care packages at a place called “Porte de la Chapelle,” which is where many refugees congregate on the outskirts of the city.

I decided to join Refugee Help not just because it serves an important cause, but because I felt I needed to contribute more than simply give a few Euros to homeless refugees from time to time. It’s hardly satisfying to give out the spare change in your wallet knowing it’s only minimally helpful. The Refugee Help Association is systematic and organized so that each helping hand has a fundamental purpose in making sure plans are executed and refugees can get the essentials they need to subsist in a place as paradoxically difficult to live in as Paris.

Paris is a place where life happens in abundance, so it’s a provocative image seeing a family of refugees camping outside a place like Louis Vuitton to sleep for the night. The refugee camps in Paris are too full, so only women and children are prioritized. The rest of the refugees are generally men who are then often found roaming the streets. There’s almost a sense of guilt I feel having the life I have when someone who’s already traveled an enduring journey to escape persecution, in whatever manner, is being given the bare minimum, if not nothing, to establish their life in some place ostensibly better.

But this is what’s so rewarding and necessary about the association I’m a part of. Last Sunday, I went to the general weekly distribution where I served tea and coffee to a group of refugees. On occasion I’ll have the chance to ask for their names and where they’re from. Many, I’ve found, are from Afghanistan, Sudan, and sometimes Syria. Like any other group of people, you have the jokers, the shy ones, or the smiley ones, and quite often they only ask for half-full cups because they don’t want to take too much. Even after having lost their homes and likely all their possessions, they still don’t want to take more than what they think they need. Granted, this is my own experience, and I can’t speak for everyone. But at every distribution, I meet a normal yet all the more exceptional group of people; I just wish popular discourse could reflect that sentiment.

There’s another distribution coming up soon, and, despite it being midterm week and quite busy, I’m looking forward to taking a break and serving warm drinks to some familiar faces. It’s not always easy to communicate with the refugees, as there are a myriad of languages spoken in these camps. But when they can’t find the word for what they want, I always ask, “chai?” I’m not sure what language(s) I’m speaking, but I know it’s a more universal word for tea. A smile often spreads across their faces at the sound of the more familiar term. Maybe, it reminds them of home.


Jess en France: Visiting a Concentration Camp

October 20, 2017

I made my way down to Germany last weekend with the goal of making it to some cultural landmarks. Because I’ve always been interested in 20th century European history, and because I only had a few days to explore, I decided to take a train to Dachau to visit the Nazi concentration camp.

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Needless to say the visit was difficult. It was surreal stepping into the physical manifestation of one of the most tragic human atrocities committed in modern history. The camp itself is configured in such a way that you always are in sight of a lookout tower or one of the large, daunting buildings that enclose the camp. Upon walking into the camp, the infamous phrase “Arbeit Macht Frei,” “Work Sets You Free,” is constructed out of metal and worked into the gate that “welcomes” you into the camp itself.

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Unfortunately the pictures I took didn’t come out too well, so I took this one offline. If the phrase is familiar to you, you might recognize it as the same one that brandishes the entrance of the Auschwitz camp as well. 

 

Throughout the camp, there were sign posts that described the history of particular points of interest. The first one I came across was one about the rows and rows of barracks that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were packed into during the Second World War. The barracks were constructed in rows with a long path from one end of the camp to the other splitting the rows down the middle. In the picture on the sign, there were small, newly planted trees lining this path. I’m not sure why of all things this is what I remember most, but those trees are now fifty feet high. They’re a reminder of the passage of time between then and now, time enough to mature a tree but not long enough to think of this war as a distant memory.

The last building I went to was the gas chamber. And to be quite honest, if I didn’t know otherwise, I would have thought I was walking into a summer camp. The area of the camp with the gas chamber was in a nicely wooded area with a brook running through it. There were two rather small buildings that didn’t meet the expectations I had of an overwhelming, factory-like set of buildings. I walked into the first building from the wrong side and didn’t read the plaques describing the purpose of the rooms until I walked out of them. I had walked into the last room—it was entirely empty. I wasn’t sure what to think until I read the sign in the adjacent room that stated it was used to pile corpses. I immediately looked down at the floor and my feet and felt almost dazed that I had set foot in a room as normal looking as this one, one that could have been someone’s bedroom or home office but in reality was once a site of death. Following this room, I walked into the gas chamber itself. I saw the gas spouts on the ceiling and walked right out. I had had enough.

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The caption above the door to the gas chamber misleadingly reads “SHOWERS”. 

 

I know this post was a heavy, believe me I left the camp hardly able to talk, but I always think it’s important to pay respect to a real and recent history that continues to have personal and political implications. It teaches us about the collective capacity of humans to commit crimes against humanity, but it also shows us our own progress in recognizing when and why to stop and intervene. It also shows us the power of the human spirit—there were many stories I read of individuals harboring Jews at their own danger or concentration camp survivors who learned to reclaim their power by finding forgiveness for those who subject them to years of life in extreme hardship and torture. But most importantly it’s important to continue to remember the six million Jews and thousands of others who lost their lives in the Holocaust.


Jess en France: Oh, Italy.

October 6, 2017

 

It’s Thursday evening, and I’m on a plane to Italy. The flight is only an hour and fifteen minutes (which, by plane, won’t get you much farther from somewhere like San Diego than spitting-distance north of LA), so I’m not accustomed to how close in proximity major European cities generally are to each other. Geographically speaking, Virginia is equivalent in total land mass to Iceland, and the US as a whole is quite a lot larger than Europe but is inhabited by twice as many people. So there certainly are “empty,” “fly-over” states because everything is packed in pretty tight. But, luckily, this also means that making it to your friend’s house a few countries over for the weekend is completely do-able.

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I’m visiting one of my good friends, Elena, in Milan and exploring the city—which is my first European city I will have been to outside France.  I was roommates with Elena when she did her exchange at UR and had the pleasure of introducing her to some American cultural dynamics. We had talked about me coming to Milan about a year ago, so it’s a bit surreal that the time has finally come around that I’m visiting her, and I get to learn a bit more about the city she grew up in. After I landed in Milan and walked out into the receiving area, I heard a familiar voice yell “Jess!” and was immediately enveloped in a long-overdue hug.

We first ventured to the Duomo Cathedral, which is one of the largest churches in Europe. I didn’t get a chance to snap any pictures of the interior, but it was nearly incomprehensible in size and just as impressively detailed. There are over three thousand statues situated on the façade surrounding the entirety of the church. If you take a look at some of the statues that are closer to the ground, you can tell that they’re not in the least bit basic but carved with great attention to detail. It’s hard to imagine that a church of this magnitude could be both conceived and constructed so long ago— the construction of the building began in 1386 and took over six decades to complete. It’s a testament not only to how incredible humans are in their capacity to create but also to how powerful human spirituality is in its similar capacity to invoke such realizations of grandeur. There’s nothing like churches or religious monuments that are as architecturally awe-inspiring.   

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This post wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about the food. Oh, the food. I met up with a group of six other Italian friends, who had studied abroad at UR the year before with Elena, and tried real pizza for the first time. Unlike American pizza, the crust is thin and the toppings are generally fresh ingredients not piled but sprinkled on. And no need to dab the oil with a napkin; you’re going to want to taste the olive oil drizzled on top. It was an entire operation trying to finish that thing—first you have to cut each individual slice and try your best to grasp and fold the pizza properly lest it falls apart. Although the most difficult pizza I’ve ever eaten, it was in no equal measure one of the best.

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Sorry for the blurry-ness– I’m typically not one to take pictures of food because inevitably I get too excited and dive right in: so this was all I could manage!

Fortunately this is only the first of several trips I’ve planned to go to Italy not only to visit Elena but also to further explore the peninsula as a whole. But fino alla prossima volta (until next time), Milan has a pizza my heart. Sorry—had to do it. 

Here are some more photos!

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Just another beautiful walk down Milan’s picturesque streets

just narrowly missed Milan fashion week, but you can still easily find bold fashion statements–like this (euro) 45,000 jacket thing

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I just narrowly missed Milan fashion week, but you can still easily find bold fashion statements–like this (euro) 45,000 jacket thing

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And yet another captivating castle


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