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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Jeanette in Morocco: A Different Universe

November 12, 2017

It’s difficult to admit, but before I came to Morocco, there were only a handful of people I felt like I had genuine support from. Whenever I told people where I would be spending my fall semester, it seemed like the first thing they said was “is it safe?” or “be careful” but it never seemed as though it was coming from a genuine place of care, but rather a place of concern. Perhaps such fears stem from the fact that Morocco is considered a developing country in Africa, or American rhetoric has made people narrow-minded about Muslim-majority countries. However, despite the doubt surrounding me, something in me told me that it couldn’t be true. There was no way people who have had no connection with a country could generalize a truth about it. It was unfair. It was ignorant.

Though I had no idea what to expect coming into Morocco, I can say that after having spent over two months here, my gut feeling was right.

Morocco is a country rich with history and culture. It is a place where strangers welcome you with mint tea, warm hugs, and hours of laughter despite strong language barriers. It is a place where community is deeply valued and everyone thinks of their neighbor before themselves. It is a place where I have been challenged to deconstruct my preconceived notions and see the world around me for what it is.

Below is a short film I created to capture my thoughts, emotions, and reflections. It was inspired by a poem I wrote the first week I was here.

“A Different Universe” – Enjoy!

 


Jeanette in Morocco: Bni Koulla Village

November 1, 2017

Last week, I spent ten days in Bni Koulla, a small Moroccan village located in the Rif Mountains. Despite the lack of running water, language barriers, and differing cultures, it has been one of the most transformative experiences I’ve ever had. Find some of my favorite moments below.

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The sun paints the sky burnt orange as it sets over the mountains and families gather along the dirt roads to share laughs and stories.

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Mourad, 10, smiles for the camera after herding sheep back into their pen.

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Jeanette means “paradise” in Arabic. This is little Jeanette and I. Our communication did not extend beyond counting to ten, playing hide and seek, and variations of concentration hand games but she made me smile every day even when it wasn’t easy to.

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This is the adobe tin-roof home I stayed in. Although my home-stay family and I could could only have minimal language exchange, it was hard to leave them at the end of the week. I had a humbling experience helping them get water from the well, cook, sweep, and perform farm work.

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On Friday, we all gathered together to make couscous, a staple food in Moroccan culture. It was a rewarding experience watching our hard work come to fruition, and not to mention, tasty!

 


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


Jeanette in Morocco: Southern Excursion

October 6, 2017

Last week, my SIT cohort embarked on an excursion through the south of Morocco. We traveled through the diverse cities of Fez, Azrou, Merzouga, Ouerzazte, and Marrakech. We saw the behind the scenes of local tanneries and tile factories, visited women’s education non-profit organizations, saw wild monkeys in the Cedar forest, rode camels in the Sahara desert, spent a night at a girls dormitory, and explored the tourism hub of Morocco.

Check out our adventures in the short film below!


Jeanette in Morocco: Calligraphy is Existence

October 3, 2017

As a member of the SIT: Field Studies Journalism and New Media program, I am currently specializing as a videographer. Last week, I had the honor of profiling Mohamed Oujddi, a thirty-five year-old local calligraphy artist based in Rabat, Morocco.

Oujddi began his career as a calligrapher to help his eight brothers’ through school. He currently teaches calligraphy to non-Arabic speaking students and completes designs for clientele and the royal palace.

“Calligraphy is existence. Because if you give more, if you create more, that means that you are here,” said Oujddi.

Oujddi shared that he is still learning about calligraphy. He hopes one day, the state can support this noble art.


Life in French Academia

September 15, 2017

In light of France’s loss in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, Sciences Po was established in order to promote a new generation of French politicians. It’s now one of the most well-known schools in France. It’s not a university in the traditional sense, however. There isn’t a contiguous campus or a cafeteria. It’s also a school that specializes in the political sciences, so there aren’t many classes that expand outside the discipline. But the most significant difference between Sciences Po and other traditional universities, in France or elsewhere, is that Sciences Po isn’t a university but a Grande École. In other words, within the French educational system, which is rather hierarchical, the pinnacle of French education is not a university but a Grand École, which is a step higher. For the sake of accuracy I’m synthesizing some external sources in my definition of Grandes Écoles, which essentially are highly prestigious and selective institutions outside of the public university system. Because they’re intensely competitive and difficult to get into, Grande École graduates tend to dominate the top echelons of the political and business sectors in France. Sciences Po in particular has produced France’s last five successive presidents. Needless to say the classes are difficult, the expectations are high, and the students here are quite impressive.

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Hard to pay attention in class when you’re learning in such a historical environment

I’m taking five courses, all of which so far have been some of the most interesting I’ve taken in college so far. My most demanding course is “The Sacred and the Profane: Critical Perspectives on Power, Ecstasy, and Violence” which is taught by a professor who used to work with UNESCO as an Enseignment (or educator). We’re currently diving into the works of sociologist Emile Durkheim, which is new territory for me academically, so it’s been relatively difficult for me so far to substantially contribute to class discussions. The class discussions as well are demanding in the sense that many students here are more familiar with classical texts and can provide compelling philosophical evidence even for the question or answers they propose in class. It’s been tough, but I’ve been enjoying the challenge—it’s certainly what Sciences Po is known for.

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Hard to believe this is classroom!

One of the other exciting parts about studying abroad is assimilating into a new social culture, and the best way to do this is to join a club. I’ve joined the “Refugee Help” association as well as “Stop and Go,” Sciences Po’s very own hitchhiking club. I wanted to get involved with the humanitarian side of politics and thought an association that is dedicated to doing exactly that would be a good choice to both meet French students and also dedicate my extra time to serving a cause the needs all the help it can get. On a less serious note, the hitchhiking club is a lighthearted group of French people struck by wanderlust and who share in excursions all across Europe. I’m going on a hitchhiking trip next weekend across France, so we’ll see how that goes. They’re two entirely different clubs but, experientially, will make my time studying abroad here all the more interesting.

À plus tard,

Jess


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