Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Just a few weeks ago I was beyond fortunate enough to travel to the United Kingdom where I met up with McDonough’s own Arielle Jennings and Monica Short... Arielle, if you’ll recall, served as Director of the Office of Civic Engagement up until last year when she moved to England to take on a new position at Wellington College and be with her now-husband Jim. My other weekend companion, Monica, is just one country over from me as she spends her semester studying in the south of France. (Psst, check out her McDonough blog site at http://mcdonoughworldwidefranceaixenprovence.blogspot.com.es/)

So what grand occasion brought us all together? Why, a wedding of course! The 29th marked Arielle and Jim’s wedding in the charming and picturesque town of Crowthorne, England (about an hour outside of London.) Being reunited with two members of the McDonough family was truly wonderful beyond words. Even if it was only for a few days, seeing Rel and Monica reminded of the love and connections I have back home in Marietta.

Monica, Arielle, and I at Wellington College in Crowthorne.

So how did I fare in foggy, London town? Quite simply, I adored it. While you may be thinking that I loved London because they speak English, hearing English again was actually my biggest challenge (aside from crossing the street, that left-side of the road thing is confusing.) After living for three months in Madrid, my ears have become accustomed to the lyrical and rapid-paced flow of Spanish.

Being thrown into an English-speaking country again was something of an assault to my senses. For the first few hours or so, I couldn’t even tell if I hearing English… Thankfully though, Monica was by my side to serve as a translator. And after a bit, my brain did in fact start to understand English again. Once that problem was solved, the weekend was more or less smooth sailing (minus the sprinting to catch the many, many trains.) 

Some highlights from London.

But of all my memories from London, one of my favorite ones actually happened at the train station about ten minutes before I was about to leave the city and return home.

King's Cross Station.

As I was purchasing my train ticket to take me to Stansted Airport, the clerk went to swipe my credit card. Before she could, I hastily stated, “Oh, sorry, it doesn't have a chip.” (European credit cards have a little section known as a chip that allows them to be read by the machine.) She slowly looked up at me, judgment written all across her face. She asked, “You’re from America, aren't you?” She said I more like a statement then a question.

 I was thrown for a second at her blunt tone, but politely replied, “Yep, I am. I can’t figure out why American cards don’t have chips, I mean everyone else does!” She paused for a brief moment, and then chuckled, “I guess that’s The United States for you, always having to do things differently!”

We both laughed together and I breathed a sigh of relief that the tension had been removed from our conversation. Now wearing a smile on her face, the woman continued, “So the airport, huh? Where you headed, back to the States?” I merrily responded, “No, I’m actually headed for Madrid. I’m studying there for the semester.” She gave me a quizzical look and asked why an American would want to study in Spain.
I then explained to her that I think it’s important for people to see the world so that they can experience different perspectives and grow. I said that too many people never leave home and end up trapped in their comfort zones their whole lives, never knowing that there’s so much more out there.

As she stared at me in silence, I worried that I had said something wrong… But suddenly she aggressively nodded her head and exclaimed, “Yeah, exactly! That’s exactly right.” She then happily handed me my train ticket and wished me a good journey home.

And as the train whisked me out of the city, I couldn't help but smile... Some days, when I laugh too loud on the metro, or wear my mismatched socks, or butcher a phrase in Spanish, I am that stereotypical, annoying American that so many Europeans envision.

But some days, I am the exception. Some days, I have the chance to change someone’s opinion of me and where I come from. Some days, even if it’s only one interaction at a time, I get to change the world.

Monday, March 10, 2014

We'll Always Have Paris.

Hi again friends, I hope all is well! So I promised myself I’d faithfully blog and document my shenanigans, especially where cross-cultural learning is concerned. But it seems I fell into the trap I swore I wouldn't whilst studying abroad… Like many a student before me, I fell in love with my host country and forgot I was supposed to be blogging.

Well I am back and am eager to share what I have observed since we last spoke... One thing I've become extremely aware of as of late is that the Spanish semester is quite a bit different from that of America. While Marietta’s Spring Break has just begun, for me midterms and Spring Break are still over a month away. Why are our timelines so off? Well here in Spain, finals week is at the end of January, rather than December. This means the new semester gets pushed all the way back to the first week in February.

While normally this difference escapes my attention, this past week or so leading up to MC’s spring break has made the change pretty hard to ignore... You see, for the past two years I've been fortunate enough to spend my spring break at Pine Ridge Reservation for ASB South Dakota. In my mind, it’s become something of a routine…  Experiencing the culture, the land, the people, and even the wind as it rolls over the Black Hills is something I anticipate all year long. So being here in Europe right now seems, well, kind of foreign.

Missing South Dakota.

While there’s a substantial part of me that wishes more than anything I could be in South Dakota building a bunk bed for the Oglala Lakota tribe members or watching the sunrise over the tan, rolling hills, another part of me also knows that deviating from my normal routine is how I learn about the world around me. If I never stray from my comfort zone, I miss out on opportunities to encounter new perspectives.

So rather than sulking about missing out on an amazing ASB trip, I left my home base of Madrid and spent my weekend exploring the famed city of Paris. Though France is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from Spain, Paris proved to be quite different from Madrid. From the language, to the metro system, to the way I was treated as a woman, my 48 hours in Paris gave me a glimpse of just how diverse Europe is.

Some tourist traps are worth it.

Curiously enough, a large part of my weekend consisted of comparing Paris to Madrid. With each difference I encountered, I found myself becoming more and more convinced that Madrid was better... But is that really true? While my Spain-loving self would passionately declare, “What a silly question, of course Madrid is better!” my more level-headed and open minded self would suggest that cultures can’t (and shouldn't!) be ranked.

After all, our preferences are driven by a menagerie of personal factors, including our past experiences and our prejudices. Therefore, we all couldn't possibly react the same way where cross-cultural interactions are concerned. And while we won’t like or agree with every culture we encounter, that doesn't mean we have the right to discount it. After all, diversity deserves respect.

While Paris initially threw me for a loop, after adjusting my mindset I was able to see the things that my prejudices had previously hidden from view. I saw beauty as the last rays of sun faded behind the Eiffel Tower... I saw charm as children giggled and danced to the songs of street performers... I saw love as an elderly couple smiled at each other and held hands by the river...

Little moments made Paris beautiful.

Little, wonderful moments like this exist in every single culture. You only have to look for them. Until next time, friends. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Musings on Coffee

Even though I don’t really think that the caffeine has much of an effect on me, I will be the first to admit that I am completely in love with coffee. My mornings, especially the early ones I’ve been experiencing as of late, are undoubtedly better when they include a cup of freshly-brewed coffee.

Having spent a substantial amount of time in Madrid, I can say with confidence that American coffee has nothing on that of Spain. Granted, coffee quality will vary depending on where you venture in the States. The Bagel Company, for instance, isn't the most elite of coffee stops (sorry, David.) Even so, coffee is just better here.

Some of the best cups of coffee I've ever had.

While the quality of coffee got a whole lot better once I touched down in Spain, that actually isn’t what makes it here so much more wonderful… Well is it the delightfully strong aroma? Nope. How about the endless selection of drinks? Naw. Those little cookie-things they give you to dip in your coffee?? No, though a good guess…

The coffee here is so completely amazing because of the atmosphere in which one consumes it.

Here, coffee isn’t something you drink out of a to-go cup as you run to your next class… Instead, you save it for when you meet up with friends and converse about your day. In Spain, coffee is meant to be shared.

It is over cups of delicious coffee that dreams are spoken out loud, confessions are made, and advice is given. No wonder then that I have yet to see a coffee-drinker on any of my early morning metro rides… Admittedly, this confused me immensely during my first couple weeks here. All these Spaniards couldn't possibly be morning people, could they? But once I had my coffee-epiphany, it all made sense. Spaniards love coffee just as much as Americans; they just treat it differently.

This isn't really that surprising when you think about what motivates our two different cultures. As a whole, Americans are very individualistic and driven by efficiency. Spaniards, in contrast, value community and relationships immensely. Consequently, putting time aside to drink coffee with someone close to you isn't a chore or nuisance, but a joy.

So what’s the take away from this? I’m not saying skip the coffee in the mornings… How else are you supposed to make it through those 8 a.m.s? What I am saying, though, is to not forget to set time aside for the people who are most important to you. Share a cup of coffee (tea, water, etc.) with a friend and sit there for more than just fifteen minutes. Give a little bit of yourself and you will be amazed at what you get back in return.

Until next time friends.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Getting to Know Madrid.

Well it has been a little over two weeks that I have been in the colorful and lively country of Spain! I only know this because of Spotify… Apparently, free accounts expire if you're abroad for more than two weeks. I guess I didn't read the fine print closely enough… While slightly annoying, Spotify reminded me that time does indeed fly when you’re having fun, especially when studying abroad.

My last two weeks have been spent taking language classes, exploring Madrid, and getting lost. Seriously, it’s an outrageous amount of getting lost (check out some of the places I stumbled upon below)… But poco a poco (bit by bit) I am learning.

One person who is helping me catch on to life in Spain is my host mom, Candela. Kind, spunky, and funny, she has made my days here a little easier. While I was originally nervous about living with a host family, it's wonderful to feel like I actually have a home here. And even when I can't eloquently express myself in Spanish, Candela is always patient and willing to teach me new words or phrases. Plus, have I mentioned the amazing view of the city from the rooftop?

Of course, Candela isn't the only one I speak Spanish with… Madrid is home to over three million people, after all. From cafes to the metro, getting to know the people here has been an interesting experience.  When I initially arrived, I very first thing I noticed was how put together the Spaniards are. Sweatpants and yoga pants are scare among the locals, a somewhat unimaginable sight on the MC Mall…

But having spent some more time in the city since then, I now know that it's not just the clothes that set the Spaniards apart. No, the thing I love the most is how open everyone is. The Spanish have a way of honestly expressing their hearts and minds, something I greatly admire.

Another notable feature? Personal space is more or less unimportant. When I visited El Prado, the elderly woman who served as the group's tour guide was practically glued to my side, enthusiastically tugging on my arms, patting my shoulder, or touching my hair the entire tour. Weird? To Americans, maybe a bit. But to Spaniards? Completely normal. Needless to say, every day here is a learning experience.

And while I may make mistakes (cultural faux pas, anyone?) the important thing is that I am genuinely trying to make the most of my time here. Until next time, friends.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Seize The Moment; Lessons From Caitlin.

Preparing for my study abroad trip to Madrid, Spain has no doubt been an interesting and trying experience. From the overwhelming amount of phone calls and emails, to the towering mountains of paperwork, this past fall semester at Marietta has been a bumpy one. There was one thing that always kept me on track, though... Whenever I felt impossibly overwhelmed, my closest friends were always there, encouraging me to step back and take a "balcony moment." It was when I did so that I was able to see that despite all the stress and red tape that comes with studying abroad, what I will gain from the experience will be unimaginably worthwhile.

One such person who constantly helped remind me of this was Caitlin Yager. Like myself, Caitlin also spent the past semester preparing to study abroad in the spring. Her journey was to take her to Russia. Despite elements like the language barrier and the inevitable cold, I could always see Caitlin's eyes light up and her passion ignite whenever she talked about studying abroad in Russia. It was her blazing passion and energy that often inspired me to look at my study abroad experience through a more positive lens.

Given this, it is beyond surreal when I consider how studying abroad is not something I'll be able to share with Caitlin. However immeasurably unfair, her passing has reminded me of how grateful I am to have the Marietta College McDonough family in my life. Whether it's been offering me support along my study abroad journey, or encouraging me to pursue leadership positions on campus, McDonough has made a world of difference in my life. I am determined, now more than ever, to make every single day abroad worthwhile. For myself and for Caitlin, I will do all I can to ensure my time in Madrid is the adventure of a lifetime.

You may choose to travel to a foreign country, or perhaps you will decide to further explore leadership opportunities on campus... Either way, I encourage you to seize every chance you have to thoughtfully engage with and support those who make up the world around you. We never know when opportunities to do so may be taken away...

As I prepare to depart for Spain in less than a week, I cannot help but be grateful for the time I spent with Caitlin. She's taught me the importance of reaching for new goals and being unafraid to let other ones go while I am abroad. Whether in the classroom or in the real world, encountering new cultural perspectives is a challenging process. We may doubt, regret, or wish we could return to a time when things were much simpler. But we cannot turn back. As life-long learners and citizens of the world, we should embrace the unknown. We mustn't forget that every new opportunity holds the promise of triumph and a brighter, more dazzling tomorrow. And most importantly, we mustn't forget to live.

I look forward to sharing my experiences abroad with you. Stick with me friends. This one's for her.