Portsmouth, NH | Durham, NH
Study Abroad, Uncategorized

On Being Wrong

I chose the enormous picture at the top of this page because it sums up a pretty big portion of how my friends and I have been spending this semester:

Being huge idiots and sticking out like sore thumbs.

Recently, Hannah and I realized something cool about our time in Europe. For five months of our lives, we get to be the minority. Not in all ways, but in some. When I speak, I’m the one with the accent. I’m the one who fumbles with euro coins in line at the supermarket. I’m the one who wears rain boots when it rains, even though no one else really does. I’m the one who gets excited about mundane things, and people smirk at my gasps and wide-eyed proclamations of, “this is awesome!” everywhere we go.

I’ve learned how to be an outsider. For a while I found myself keeping my head down, cringing at myself for wearing rain boots every day. I don’t speak like the people here, I don’t dress like them, and I found myself fumbling through social customs and interactions during my first month. At first it made me uncomfortable. I felt big and loud and intimidated, even though I received patience and kindness from the people around whom I mess up.

After a while, though, I got comfortable with being an outsider. This is due in large part to the fact that I was never really treated like one, I only thought of myself that way, but also because I got good at it. Hann was experiencing something similar in Spain, only she was grappling with the challenges of not being able to articulate herself in Spanish, which is even more nuts. We were talking about how we felt so embarrassingly American when I said, “But, Hann, we are American.” There was no use trying to deny that. It’s not like we could just close our eyes and spontaneously become cultured Europeans who were fluent in three languages. We realized that we were wasting our time trying to assimilate so well into this culture that we were almost missing out on it.

So I started to fight back the cringe that crept up my spine when someone smirked at something I said. I began to appreciate the advice given to me by friends who are from here. Eventually I didn’t wait until I was corrected for doing the wrong thing, I’d walk up to the nearest local and ask. My roommate Jen is probably one of the most enthusiastic and positive people I’ve ever met, and people have taken to imitating the way she says, “wooow!” whenever she gets excited. She never masks her enthusiasm, so I decided that neither would I. I’ve been walking the streets of Cork for three months now, and I still walk with my face tilted up toward the sky, taking it all in.

I hope that I’ve never been a proud or arrogant person, but this semester has allowed me to experience first-hand the different lives that people around the world are living, and it’ been a lot to wrap my head around. When you’ve never left your cultural bubble, it’s hard to imagine that there are people out there who’s perspective and experience has been so totally different from yours. You’ve never gotten to ask their opinions or hear their languages or taste their foods. Living abroad means that you get to inhabit a different perspective, you get to walk the cobblestone streets of a country of people who grew up a world away from you. It’s been a privilege to be an outsider, a privilege to be wrong.

I won’t lie to you guys, I sort of stole this idea from Hannah. But she’s in Amsterdam right now and I was scrambling for a topic today. (So this is happening, Hann. Sorry.) She mentioned to me a few weeks ago how she’s learned how to be wrong. How to be okay with the fact that she speaks in broken Spanish and can’t always say what’s on her mind as eloquently as at home. We’ve both gotten good at not knowing how things work sometimes. We’re masters of receiving corrections graciously and realizing we’re talking loudly in public places. We’re professionals at being wrong.

(Below are pictures of us actively not blending in.)

  

  

 

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Study Abroad

Feminist Girl in Spain

“There is nothing gutsier to me than a person announcing that their story is one that deserves to be told, especially if that person is a woman.” –Lena Dunham, Not That Kind of Girl

Today my story looks like this: I heard “Going Down For Real” by Flo Rida in my favorite café over breakfast and danced a little in my chair as I ate my toasted bread with olive oil. (That song will never not be awesome, especially in Spanish cafes.) I got caught in a rainstorm on my way to class and my little black umbrella almost turned inside out. When I got home with wet shoes and tried to plug in my computer, my charger died. I tracked down an Apple store nearby and almost cried at how much my new cargador cost. I got home and Skyped my mom, Skyped Julie. Actually cried. Laughed a lot more and then ate some chocolate. And now I’m here.

Lena Dunham has been in my head a lot lately. I’ve been ripping through her new memoir even faster than I ripped through Season 3 of House of Cards. (Only 13 episodes? What the fuck, Netflix?) If you don’t know who Lena Dunham is and you’re into genius character development/graphic nudity, you should check out her HBO show Girls. Her writing is honest, irreverent, witty, and graphically sexual. Lots of what she has to say makes me uncomfortable. Lots of what she has to say makes me think.

Take the term “girl crush,” for example. I’ve used those words in casual conversation too many times to count, mostly in association with Emma Watson/Emma Stone/Jennifer Lawrence, aka the holy trifecta. I’ve watched that Jenna Marbles video a lot of times. (“I don’t know if I want to be you or be on you!”) Here’s what Lena has to say on the topic:

“I find the term ‘girl crush’ slightly homophobic, as if I need to make it clear that my crush on another woman is not at all sexual, but rather, mild and adorable, much like…a girl.”

Whoa. The nod to homophobia felt accurate, but it was the bigger context of Lena’s observation that struck me most. Mild and adorable. So much was wrapped up in those two words. I had to put the book down for a second.

Girls are expected to be mild and adorable. If we’re not, we get called names. Bossy. Bitch. Slut. How much of my life has been shaped by the expectation of me to be inoffensive, like a girl? How many times have I apologized for asking a question in class? How many times have I swallowed my anger instead of lashing out for fear of looking “crazy”? (If you’re looking for a quick and easy way to discount a girl’s rationale and intellect, just call her crazy the next time she angry-cries.)

Here, I’d like to include a note from Julie (via Microsoft Word bubble comment on an early draft of this post): “It’d be totally cool if you could add another sentence here about how dumb it is that when we’re talking about something and we’re impassioned or upset and someone calls us crazy, we feel crazy. Like crawl-under-a-rock-never-speak-in-public-again-stupid. And all you have to do is tell us to calm down and whatever it was we were saying, no matter how cool or important or right or wrong, it vanishes. It doesn’t matter anymore because we were just being crazy.” She put it way better than I could.

Just now I noticed my voice go up an octave as I thanked my host mom for dinner. Mild and adorable. Do my guy friends have a “thank you” voice? Do they hide their feelings so people don’t accuse them of being crazy? I’m honestly not sure.

The depth of the things I’ve never noticed is hard to wrap my head around. I still don’t always know what to believe or think, but when I find a writer that makes my world feel like it’s expanding and shrinking at the same time and forces me to question my place in it, I feel the need to write about her on the Internet.

So Lena Dunham has been in my head, and she has me thinking about my own story, which might just be the most powerful thing an author can do. I’ve always felt like I have a critically-acclaimed memoir living in me somewhere. (I have this little daydream where Julie and I write a witty nonfiction book together and build a Hannah & Julie empire, complete with fancy pens, signature scents, and a movie deal featuring all three members of the holy trifecta.) But there are a few things about memoir-writing that make me a little nervous.

Names. In nonfiction, changing a character’s name and certain physical characteristics is usually enough to avoid accusations of being a slanderer or a total asshole. It’s not that I have bad stuff to say about a lot of people, but I do have a lot of stuff to say about a lot of people. If I give my friend Pete a mustache and name him Jack, everyone I know is still going to know that it’s fucking Pete. Not sure I’m ready for that kind of transparency.

Interesting-ness. Of course by the time I get around to writing my memoir I’ll have published a few (beloved, imaginative, wildly successful) novels and maybe pushed out a kid or two, but I’m really not sure if I’ll ever do anything memoir-worthy. I don’t plan on hiking the Appalachian Trail by myself or getting pinned by a rock and having to cut off my own arm to survive. I’m way too anxious to try any hard drugs, so the Strung Out Druggie Turned Successful Lawyer/Author/Surgeon story isn’t too likely. I’m not saying I need a gimmick, but I’m probably going to have to be pretty witty to compete with all those other ones.

Boys. Taking the fear of transparency a bit further, I sometimes wonder what would happen when it came time to write the chapters about boys. I’ve only officially dated one—we were fourteen, we made pizza together once—but I have some great ass stories to tell. From a storytelling perspective, the only thing more interesting than dating someone is not actually dating someone. More confusion, more suspense, more hang-outs that you think might be dates but really turn out to be platonic viewings of Dutch movies about trolls. The idea of one of my ex-flings picking up my future memoir and finding himself in some chapter—with a fake mustache, probably—makes me just a little bit nauseous.

Maybe I’ll get my memoir book-deal one day, maybe I won’t. But I think it’s important to know that I have a story to tell, even if it’s just to myself.

I know I wandered a bit from the #hannahandjulieabroad theme this week, but don’t worry, there’s plenty more to come. In the meantime, feel free to enjoy this historical re-enactment of bulls and matadors fighting in La Plaza de Toros in Ronda, Spain.

No bulls were harmed in the making of this montage.

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Study Abroad, Uncategorized

It’s All About The People

The bond formed between people who’ve been plopped into a foreign country where they don’t know a single soul is pretty unique to the study abroad experience, and it’s the stuff of fairy tales. Allow me to explain.

So it’s a Wednesday like any other, no big deal. Except for the fact that you’ve just been traveling for 20 hours, you’ve only slept for about three of those hours, and all you’ve eaten is half a granola bar. You’re looking out the window of your taxi and trying to comprehend that all of the buildings and fields that you’re seeing are in a different country, that you’re in a different country. You arrive at your home for the next five months, a building you’ve never seen before, you’re handed a key, and shown to your apartment. You struggle to figure out how to unlock the door while keeping your suitcase from falling over. You can hear voices on the other side of the wall. The lock clicks and you push open the door, heart racing.

These are the people you’ve been wondering about for the past six months, the elusive people who you knew you’d be living with, but were unable to find any information on. Would they be American, Irish, or from another country entirely? Would they speak English? Would they be future lifelong friends? These were the most common questions I fielded from curious family members, and the ones that rattled around in my mind for months before I left, unanswered. As I walked down the narrow hallway of my apartment towards my new people, I thought I might keel over from the anticipation.

There were four girls perched on couches and chairs in our kitchen/living room, speaking in American accents. Their names were Jen, Erin, Shannon, and Liz, and they were as excited/freaked out by my presence as I was by theirs. Finally, the curtain was pulled back and the enigma revealed.

Now plenty of situations bring people together. There’s the commiseration of waiting in a long and drudgerous line at the post office when you really have to pee. (Especially if you both have to pee.) There’s the inexplicable joy of seeing someone you kind of know in a place you never think you’d see them. (In an airport, at the top of a mountain, in a public bathroom in Europe.)

Then there’s the study abroad experience. The people you meet here are the ones you rely on when you’re starting over. They’re the people standing next to you as you build a life for yourself in a brand-new place. They’re the people you wake up at 4 a.m. with to travel, the same people you stayed out until 2a.m. with the night before.

I had a few moments recently when I told myself that I’d gotten pretty lucky with my people. One was our Tuesday excursion to London to see one of my favorite bands.

 

We’d gotten up at four in the morning for our flight, and once our feet touched the ground in London, we were going nonstop. We posed with Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, and Winston Churchill (and friends.)

   

  

  

We all thought this was a great idea.

  

  

We imitated statues, to varying degrees of success.

One of our last stops before checking into the hostel at 3p.m. was Westminster Abbey. At this point we’d been awake and wearing backpacks for almost 12 hours, and a little part of me wanted to die. At least, my body did. My brain was too transfixed with what I was seeing to be anything but awe-struck.

  

I looked around and my roommates had similar hang-dog expressions on, but when I caught their eyes, they smiled and gave me the same this-is-awesome-I-can’t believe-we’re here face. When I asked the questions, do you guys want to fly to London on a Tuesday? At 6a.m.? To see a band I’m forcing you to listen to? I could only hope for a yes, and immediately, I got it. They followed me across the English Channel, all around London, and even into Westminster Abbey, (a detour I pushed hard for.) And even when we got there, they were just as willing to make the most of every minute, despite exhaustion. That day didn’t end until midnight, after the concert, and they laughed with me for all 18 hours of it.  

The second time was during our Ring of Kerry weekend, which was basically three days of beautiful Irish landscapes, cliffs, mountains, waterfalls, and baby sheep.

        

Saturday night was both my roommate Shannon’s birthday, and my friend Bridget’s. We walked out of our hotel towards town in Cahersiveen, Country Kerry in search of birthday debauchery. We didn’t realize how small this town was until we got to the main street and realized that little to nothing was going on, but soon found a small pub with live traditional music. Within five minutes of our arrival, the man singing was taking our requests, and we were dancing with the locals. The average age of this pub was about 70, and the dancing was closer to ballroom style than anything we were used to. But we were welcomed like old friends, and we laughed into each other’s shoulders the whole time.

“We just danced with old-ass Irish ladies and it was pretty fun.” -Matt.

That weekend we were the first ones to the top of the mountain and the last ones to get back to the bus, every time. There were a few times each day that I felt lucky to be with people who knew how to make the most of standing on a rainy, windy mountain and dancing with elderly people on clumsy feet. Jen, Erin, Shannon, Matt, Tobin, and Zach, this one’s for you guys. #hannahandjulieabroad.

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Study Abroad, Uncategorized

My Body Hurts and This Place is Awesome

Hannah (8:44 am): Running on 3 hours of sleep, about to go tour all day and train home again tonight

Hannah (8:45 am): Might die

Julie (8:46 am): That sounds like the study abroad experience in a nutshell

Julie (8:46 am): PUSH THROUGH YOU GOT THIS

Before I came abroad, I had a lot of poetic notions about traveling through Europe. You eat chocolate croissants on cobblestone streets and listen to the strange music of new languages and discover tiny restaurants with strong wine and warm bread. You get to see the world through new eyes. I mean, just google “travel quotes.” You’ll see what I mean.

Nothing like some white words against a mountain backdrop to make you want to get up and flee the country, am I right?

I love a good “not all those who wander are lost” graphic just as much as the next guy, but I think there’s an important aspect of traveling that so far has not made it into any inspirational quotes: Your body will be supremely uncomfortable 60-75% of the time. (I’m not sure what that would look like in white cursive against a mountain, but it’d probably be less poetic than those other ones.)

My program took an absolutely fantastic trip to Barcelona this weekend. All fifteen of us—sixteen including our program coordinator—piled onto a train at the Granada Train Station at 9:30pm on Thursday night. Then we sat on that train for eleven hours, arrived in Barcelona at around 8:45am, and tried to go about our days like normal human beings.

The thing you should know about overnight trains is that they are the worst. If you pay extra you can get a claustrophobic little bunk or a seat that reclines all the way down with big cushions. We study abroad students were unwilling to pay for either of those things, so we were in the “coach” class with the rest of the peasants. (Guaranteed we had more fun than those bastards in first class, anyways. I was kind of hoping for a lively dance scene like in Titanic, but everyone in our car mostly just slept.) It was like being on a bus, if that bus had lighting like an abandoned mental hospital and drove for eleven hours straight.

It’s a testament to how awesome all the people in my program are that I can say I actually had fun on that damn train. Not the whole time—part of the time was just as miserable as it sounds—but we found the dining cart and ordered a few beers and played card games and ate Pringles. Six or seven or eight hours later, we were in Barcelona.

Thoughts While Exploring a Foreign City Immediately After 12 Hours on a Train:

Holy crap, this is great, I feel great. Somebody sign me up for an Iron Man or something.
This city has all the things! Cathedrals! More cathedrals! I love traveling!
Hm, I’m a little tired. I guess that’s to be expected.
Damn, my feet hurt.
How long have we been walking? An hour? Seven?
You’re telling me we’ve been walking for ten minutes? And we can’t check into the hostel for another THREE HOURS?
Alright, coffee. Coffee coffee coffee.
My body feels a little tingly. Am I drunk?
Okay I’m definitely not drunk. The ground might be moving though.
Only another 16-17 hours until I can go to bed. Solid.

Your face gets hot, your legs get heavy, and you almost definitely can’t poop after twelve hours of snacking on train cafeteria food. But none of that really matters.

When traveling, my body is the least of my worries. It’s really just this vehicle that I have to keep alive in order to see what I want to see. Drink water, wear comfortable shoes, eat enough gelato to stay full until dinner. We took an overnight train both ways and still had a fricken awesome weekend. Barcelona didn’t stand a chance.

  

So yes, physical discomfort is a huge part of traveling on a budget. But honestly, being a little at war with your body sometimes doesn’t take away from the travel experience. If anything, I think it adds to it. The exhaustion reminds you how far your body’s moved. The ache in your legs reminds you how many steps you’ve taken through a new city. The indigestion reminds you that you should really pack a few more fruits and vegetables the next time you get on an overnight train.

It’s better than white cursive over a blue mountain range. It’s the real thing. #hannahandjulieabroad

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Study Abroad, Uncategorized

Reverse Dog Years

At this point, it’s probably not a surprise to you twelve dedicated readers that Hannah and I sometimes leave writing these posts until the last minute. In fact, we’ve been banking pretty hard on the fact that the East Coast is five hours behind in order to get these posts out on time. At least, I have.

Somehow, it’s one a.m. here in Cork as I begin to write this entry. All hopes of Hannah being able to proof-read for me have gone out the window, as she’s an hour ahead of me and probably planning to get up early and do responsible-people-things. Things that people who start blog posts at one a.m. don’t do. Damn you, Hann.

The thing is, I didn’t mean to put this off until now. I always look forward to writing for the twelve of you, and since I’ve gotten to Ireland there’s never been a shortage of things to say. I mentally plan my post all week, jotting down phrases that keep turning up in my head. And I’ve got plenty of time to carefully craft and revise multiple drafts. So much free time, oceans of it. So why is this happening at 1am on this technically Tuesday morning? I have a few theories.

Mainly:

This semester is a worm-hole where time is elastic.

Somehow, I’ve been here for almost two months. When I got my schedule after the first week, I realized just how much free time I had and almost had a heart attack. There was so much free time. I had classes but no homework, no job, no responsibilities for any clubs, no homework. This place felt like summer camp, only rainier. I probably spent an hour each day wondering what I would do with all of my new free time.

You guys, I don’t know where it goes, but the time goes by in a hurry. You blink and a week is gone. You glance at the calendar and it’s already March. You tell yourself all day that you’re going to write this post, and then it’s 1 a.m. “I’ll see you next month,” Hannah told me the other day, “Which sounds like a lot, but that’s like 10 minutes in study-abroad-time.” And it’s true. We’ve taken to calling it reverse dog years.

Adjusting to a lifestyle of ample leisure time was tough at first. I didn’t realize how much I depended on being busy until I landed in a place where I didn’t have any time commitments. I felt like a lazy alien at first, but now I’d say I’m a pro at being unoccupied. So good, in fact, that having more than a few things to do plus classes completely puts me out. Last week I had to go to the grocery store and write a paper, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull it off.

I’m not lazy all the time, though. Another theme I’m noticing about study abroad is that life seems to switch back and forth from opposite ends of a spectrum rather than finding a happy medium. I’m either having a relaxing week, getting plenty of sleep, or I’m flying to London at six a.m. on a Tuesday and running off of four hours a night. I don’t crack a book a month, then have an exam and an essay due within two days. I’m either starving or stuffed, overly prepared or a complete mess, but always aware of how lucky I am to be living this semester. I’m never too busy to slow down and marvel in the fact that I’m actually here.

So that brings me here. It’s approaching 2 a.m. now, and I didn’t get around to writing about anything that I had originally planned. Since I last wrote I’ve been to London, watched people eat gross things until they puked, and held a baby lamb. But another hour has sped by in reverse dog years, so I’m going to say goodnight to you all.

     

    

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