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: 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: Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes!

September 4, 2017

Now that orientation is over, and I’ve been settled with my host family for over a week, I want to talk about studying abroad and the inevitable adjustment process. Before coming to France I only spoke as much French as I had managed to cram over the summer. Although many people in Europe speak English as their second, third, or even fourth language (and I met some Europeans who know a fifth one), the French are notoriously picky about language competency. Granted, this is a stereotype, but the French are rightfully proud of being a historically significant contributor to the world in art, gastronomy, and language and have the cultural organizations to ensure that the ‘French’ way is respected. So I made sure that upon arriving in Paris I would, at the least, have a basic grasp on, well, the basics.

Inevitably, adjusting to a new language is difficult, and I’ve messed up quite a few times. One of my most embarrassing moments, admittedly, occurred when I tried to talk about the former President of Vichy France, Philippe Petain, and mispronounced his last name. I won’t be too explicit, but I, essentially, had renamed the man “President *expletive*,” about which it took everything in my host mom not to burst out laughing.

Although it was easy enough to laugh off my mistake, it took a while longer to navigate and grow accustom to other cultural shifts. The French don’t generally make small talk with strangers. This also means that smiling at strangers or saying “hi” to them in passing is bizarre. As someone who loves to smile I’ve garnered some unwanted attention being a bit too ‘smiley’ on the streets of Paris. But on the other hand, when French people engage in conversation with you they do it not out of a sense of obligation to be nice but because they genuinely want to. So there isn’t much doubt when a French person offers to help you that they sincerely would like to help. If I walk into a store or go to a restaurant there isn’t always someone readily and eagerly waiting to assist me, but there is certainly help if I ask. There’s a more pronounced sense of independence or ‘laissez-faire-ness’ here that is difficult to articulate, but it starkly contrasts with the bustle of American overt-friendliness.

This is one of my favorite aspects of the French culture, however—most don’t feel an obligation to make small talk and, consequently, respect each other’s solitude. The metro is almost always silent. Interestingly though, most aren’t looking down at their phones, like many would in the States (because there is a sense of awkwardness for Americans when we don’t have something with which to occupy ourselves). Most are reading a book or staring off into space. In cafes, people generally sit on the terrace and eat by themselves while people-watching. This isn’t to say that French culture is aloof or intensely introverted, but silence and solitude is acceptable, and there isn’t a cultural necessitation that people have to be doing something lest they look awkward. Human interaction is still important, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s conducted with a different purpose in different settings than what I’m used to in the United States. As someone who enjoys her solitude eating alone at restaurants or going solo to a movie, often to the curiosity of American onlookers in the States, I feel right at home slipping into this aspect of French culture.

I start my first day of school tomorrow, and I’m excited for the new people, events, and expectations looming on the horizon. During orientation we were given instruction on how to acclimate to the French methodology of writing, which is notoriously strict and systematic. So aside from acclimating to a new school and student body, I have to acclimate to a new system of education as well. Next week I will be sure to talk a bit more about the ‘French’ way of all things academia and the five classes I plan on taking for the rest of the semester.

À la prochaine,

Jess

P.S. I’ve done a bit of exploring around Paris, so here are some photos. More to come!

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Jess en France: A Beginning

August 27, 2017

It’s quite hard to imagine a city that is as easy to fall in love with as Paris. Every street corner has a musician, every boulevard is peppered with bakeries, and the very ground you walk on is historical. The river Seine weaves itself throughout the city and, today, I find myself dangling my feet at its elevated edge. Along this part of the canal-way there are wide ledges where Parisians and tourists alike come for leisure. I have my journal with me, as I often do, and feel compelled to reflect on these past few days. I sit under the shade of a willow tree and, in the warmth of a setting sun, I begin to catalog my time in France so far.

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The first day I arrived in Paris I stayed in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where I met with a friend who currently studies at Sciences Po. SGL is not only in the outskirts of Paris where the views are panoramic but it also is in one of Paris’ most beautiful and historical parts. We walked through a large garden next to an even larger castle that used to house the royal family before Versailles was built. Every facet of the chateau had been restored to its original state—the gargoyles, the Gothic-inspired ornamentation of the facade, the exactly trimmed square hedges in the garden and the perfectly spread beige gravel. This attention to detail is not uncommon in the rest of Paris. I came to discover in the next few days that the entire city is just as architecturally ornate. It was Day 1 and I was already awestruck.

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Orientation began the next day, and it felt like freshman year all over again—in a good way! Although I got lost going in the wrong direction on the metro, I made it to school and, fortunately, was given a tour and a map to help orient myself to the area. In my orientation group, China, South Korea, Sweden, Brazil, the US, and Singapore were all represented, which made for a melting pot of cultural diversity and ever-more interesting conversation topics. We were then funneled into a massive auditorium, which I later learned is a lecture hall. Coming from a school with an average class size of sixteen people, a classroom of that size is a bit alien to me. The director of the university, Frederic Mion, was in attendance and gave a speech about the many paths we might find ourselves traversing this next year or semester of our lives and the richness they bring to our sense of identity as citizens and academics of the world. And just as my orientation facilitated for me at University of Richmond, I felt like I had found a new home at Sciences Po.

 

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It’s the weekend now, and I’ve moved into my housing arrangement for the semester. I’m living with a lovely host family in Montmartre, and they are thankfully patient with my limited French. I chose to live with a host family because I wanted an immersion experience. It also helps curb the homesickness to be in a home with a mom who cooks wonderful French food. They live right next to the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur or the Sacred Heart Church as us Anglophones know it. The church is constructed of limestone, which is said to have an effervescent glow after it rains. Needless to say, this area is beautiful, the church down the road is ethereal, and I’m pretty ecstatic about spending the next four months with a wonderful family.

 

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I still have a few days of orientation left, so my next update will include some more tidbits about acclimating to French life as I’m introduced to all its Parisian nooks and crannies.

à bientôt,

Jessica


Jess en France: Nerves (the Good Kind?)

August 25, 2017

It’s a few days before I fly to Paris, and my hyper-active mind has presented me with a mixed-bag of emotions. I find myself reminiscing the days before I made my move across the country, from southern California, to start my college career at University of Richmond. But as I now face the new prospect of moving across the world, to one of the most gushed about destinations on our planet, the sentiment of these last few days feel similar, yet altogether different than that before I came to Richmond. If you’re like me, you like to plan and over-plan, going over minutiae in your head until planning becomes superfluous (and even unhelpful). But if there’s anything I learned from my move just a few years ago it’s that there’s a finite extent to which planning is actually going to help—especially when you’re travelling and taking root in an entirely new place. This isn’t to say you should “wing it”—travelling can be logistically challenging. However, one of the greatest parts about travelling is letting yourself be surprised by what you find and allowing it to paint your experience, rather than you painstakingly painting it for yourself. And this is where my anxieties fortunately drop-off, at the point where I let myself “be” and let what will come, come.

Hi, I’m Jess. I’m a UR student majoring in International Studies: World Politics and Diplomacy, and I’m spending my first of two semesters abroad studying at Sciences Po in Paris, France. I chose to study abroad in France for two main reasons—to work on my French language skills and to study at Sciences Po, which offers one of the best International Politics programs in higher education. I will be staying with a host family in Montmartre, which is a large hill in the eighteenth arrondissement (i.e. the outer district of the city) as well as a historically renowned part of Paris that artists have flocked to throughout the years, particularly in the nineteenth century. As someone who loves to write, I can’t wait to scope out a “writers spot” and bask in the wonderment this corner of the city has to offer. So I would definitely be remiss not to mention that Paris is a melting-pot of cultural, artistic, as well as musical, and gastronomical prominence! There is quite a lot to look forward to.

I’ve been truly blessed with such a wonderful opportunity to study here, and there are many people to thank—professors and friends who have supported me, but also the Office of International Education and Chris Klein, my study abroad adviser. Without them, I wouldn’t have been afforded such a life-altering adventure. I cannot wait to share my experiences with you and any tips or words of wisdom I may be able to impart as I venture off into Europe.  I will be posting weekly, so stay tuned!

À la prochaine (Until next time),

Jess


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