These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
As I sit here in the Munich, Germany train station, awaiting the 21:00 train back to my wonderful home in Florence, Italy, I am starting to think over my time in Europe for the past three months. It seems so odd that what feels like just a few short weeks ago, I was a scared, dependent, 20 year old, stepping off the plane into completely uncharted waters. I had never uttered a word in Italian, never had my passport stamped, and never thought I would be where I am now. In my time here, I have ridden a bike along the Meditteranean Sea in Barcelona, gone scuba diving in the French Riviera, won a free beer at the Heineken Museum in Amsterdam, crossed the Charles Bridge in Prague, and a whole host of other activities I had never even dreamed of. Three months ago, if you had told me that someday, I would be staring at an octopus in real life, dressed to the nines in my scuba gear at the bottom of the bay in Nice, I would have called you insane. But sitting here, in Germany for the second time in three months, it seems completely normal.
Everyone warned me, before I got on that plane back in Minneapolis, that studying abroad would change me. That I would come back with incredible fashion sense, picky taste in food, and a snobbish attitude toward anyone who hadn't experienced the things I had. But I am here to tell you how wrong those people are. In fact, I feel the complete opposite of arrogant or snobbish. I feel like the luckiest kid in the entire world. I do not take these experiences for granted, and am blessed enough to be constantly reminded of that.
I used to be afraid to go anywhere alone, and now I can sit in a German train station for four hours completely alone and not think a thing of it. I can take an overnight train with people speaking German on one side of me, and Italian on the other, and not feel intimidated. Studying abroad has given me the confidence I have always admired in others (or maybe that's just the Hofbrau talking).
One of my favorite places I have visited, is the tiny town of Cortona, Italy. It is where the film, Under the Tuscan Sun, with Diane Lane was filmed. It is everything you imagine when you picture Italy; fabulous pizza, beautiful doors and windows decorated with flowers, clothes hanging off the line, and of course, a view of the beautiful Tuscan hills. It also helped that my mother hitchhiked to get us to the top, only to make us realize that the only was down was hiking...did I mention Cortona is located at the top of a very large hill? About 4 kilometers (2 1/5 miles) from the nearest town.
But if I'm being completely honest, studying abroad isn't just about the places you travel to, though that is a wonderful perk. The best part about studying abroad is the bond you create with your host city. Florence will always hold a most special place in my heart. It is the place where I really grew into my own, was challenged to my very breaking point, met some of my very best friends, and completely fell in love with Italy. Never has a single place given me so much, simply by housing me. I will be forever grateful to the city of Florence. And someday, when I return there, possibly with a family of my own, I will remember the days I spent walking those streets, eating the best food in the world, making some of my favorite memories.
I guess my point is that the person writing this blog to you today, is a completely different person than the one who wrote to you three months ago. And I couldn't be more grateful to the experiences I have had, and the people who have helped me have them, encouraging me no matter what.
The time I have left in Europe is precious, and I don't intend on wasting a single second. I hope I haven't bored any of you too much with my European life realizations. But I must leave you now, I have to catch my train. I guess the one thing Europe hasn't taught me is how to actually make it to things on time. But like I said, I've still got some time. Ciao for now!
Andrew Morrison | March 12th 2014 17:49 BT
Two weeks ago, I woke up in Rio De Janeiro to a cacophony of samba music and streets flooded with elaborately costumed belligerent tourists while the residents of Rio went about selling fruit and stocking their shops. It was 7:30 in the morning and my week long Carnival experience was merely beginning. A strike among the waste management staff in Rio had left the streets covered in garbage but people continued to celebrate no matter what they were stepping on. Carnival is like the marriage of Halloween and ancient African traditions to an average tourist but I wondered how actual Cariocas, people from Rio De Janeiro, actually feel about the festivities. To understand the customs of the holiday, I will take you into my experience and offer resources for you to learn more about this remarkable and cultural celebration.
[Traditional dances at Ipanema Beach were just one of the many cultural performances open to the public to participate it - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
Carnival was derived from ancient Roman Catholic traditions and was transplanted to Rio De Janeiro during the 19th century. The mixture of cultures making up the population of Rio and the extravagant samba school parades are what makes Rio one of the most unique Carnival experiences in the world. Last year, Carnival attracted over 2 billion tourists and generated approximately 2.5 billion in revenue. In Rio, Carnival is big business. The celebration differs regionally however, with the greatest popularity occurring in the northeastern and southeastern regions of the country. The large cities in these regions basically shut-down during the week of Carnival which takes place Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.
[With waste management workers on strike and thousands of tourists flooding the city, garbage began to pile up rapidly during Carnival - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
The extravagant parades are made up of 12 different samba groups competing to be the best school of Rio De Janeiro. Each group represents a different neighborhood of Rio De Janeiro and they must develop a completely original choreographed song with an allotted 80 minutes to perform. These performances are practiced for seven months in a giant warehouse in complete secrecy and when Carnival finally takes place, each group of 5,000 plus performers takes public transportation to the famed Sambadrome and begins their show. The floats are enormous and highly elaborate like moving art galleries pushed by people for the entire 80 minutes. No machines are allowed in the performances. The best six of the 12 samba schools go on to the champion’s parade but only one is the true champion.
[Perhaps the most iconic figure of Carnival is the Queen of the Drums - The woman that leads the entire samba school and must impress judges with her samba choreography - Credit: Ndecam via Flickr CC]
This year the group Unidos Da Tijuca won the competition with their “agility” themed performance. Every performer represented something related to speed like a pack of cheetahs or a swarm of racecars. Another group represented pirates of the Caribbean, complete with twirling sword fights and scallywags being shot out of cannons hundreds of feet above the crowd. The bit that consistently entranced me was the duo flag bearers that lead each group like a prom king and queen. They have the honor of presenting their school’s signature flag and the mission of charming the crowd, judges and cameras. Often, but not surprisingly, a member of the duo is a Brazilian celebrity. The entire Sambadrome experience costs a minimum of $200 for basic admission. Tourists can also pay to participate in the famed parade, even wear the costumes and learn the choreography.
[The Sambadrome is the epicenter of Carnival in Brazil seating over 72,000 patrons - Credit: Chupacabras via Flickr CC]
Some attend the Sambadrome annually and are loyal fans to specific groups but what I learned from my experience in Rio De Janeiro was that most Cariocas would rather participate in one of the hundreds of Blocos de Rua, or block parties. The block parties are where you can learn the dances, meet the samba band members, and actually participate in the new and old Carnival traditions. These Blocos occur across the city, are completely free, and each with a totally different vibe. Some are strictly samba while others might be alternative rock. The event begins with a band, followed by dancing, and finally a parade where everyone participates including children and elderly people in wheelchairs. It is a beautiful sight to see an entire community celebrating together.
[A young boy costumed as Captain America sprays silly string into the air as his mother holds his shield. These are the kind of parades in Rio that I truly appreciated - Credit: Andrew Morrison]
My 11 days in Rio De Janeiro proved that the city had all of the exotic charms I wanted to discover for myself. Carnival proved to be the most elaborate and extravagant party I have ever attended and not to mention the record-smashing number of men wearing bras. Ultimately, I fell in love with the freedom of the celebration and the inclusiveness for all people no matter where they rank socioeconomically, what age group they are in or what gender pronoun they choose. The workers strike finally ended with the group earning the increased rights and wages they had demanded and the streets of Rio De Janeiro returned to normal. The celebrations of the workers melted into the block parties almost as if there had never been a problem. Despite the major dispute, Carnival remains the week in every year where Brazil opens up their streets to the world and pushes you to ask, “so what is normal?”
My name is Andrew Morrison and I am an environmental science senior from the University of Minnesota completing soil science research in southern Brazil for an entire year. If you have suggestions or ideas please contact me via my site
To learn more about Brazil use these resources:
- The entire Sambadrome parade of 2013
- A free online course about the history of Brazil
Unlike “banana,” “apple,” and the inexplicable “apple with a banana flavor” my first Chinese textbook insisted was real (as best as I can tell, it’s not), none of these fruits were a part of my beginning language classes. If I’d ever heard of them before, their names were nothing but bright abstractions conjuring islands, unfamiliar trees, hot suns. I learned to parrot the Chinese words for a series of fruits never real to me outside of Asia, in some cases later matching them with English names like “pommelo” or “red bayberry” or some other unfamiliar label (unrecognized by my version of Microsoft Word) that didn’t help explain to my father what it was I was waving in the corner of his computer screen.
These fruits are an interesting study of the connection between object and language. Often, the language in which something is first known becomes the default, as though that thing is more firmly entwined with its name in that language, that Chinese is its true name and English a paltry shadow, or English tied to its essence and Chinese a clumsy affixation. Sometimes it’s a matter of ease. Pommelo in Chinese has two syllables, 柚子youzi, and that becomes the name everyone around me calls it by, even in the midst of all-English conversations.
Having learned to categorize Clementines and Mandarins and Navels as “oranges” in the broad sense, I struggle in Chinese to make distinctions between fruits that all look like they belong to that family but are apparently strictly separated based on some invisible logic - small greenish globes with orange-like interiors; larger yellow-orange fruits also sectioned into slices sealed in semi-transparent white; palm-sized spheres slightly flat at the ends and easy to peel. They might be 橙子chengzi, 柑子 ganzi, 柑橘 ganju, or 橘子 juzi. No broader category of “orange” to sweep them all into. I’m still not wholly confident I have that one sorted out. Vendors are puzzled if I approach asking how much the chengzi cost while pointing at something that clearly belongs in the juzi category.
Names are the beginning. Learning to properly label a fruit is part one of the challenge that continues with finding out how to know when it is ripe and how to eat it, tasks that seem deceptively easy. It should be basic: peel, and eat, or don’t peel and just eat, but even choosing which of those two methods to follow can be a decision fraught with uncertainty.
With its fuchsia rind, this sweltering tropical fruit is the only one to ever rival my love for the wild raspberry.
Those tiny orbs were long banned from the U.S., and once imports began to trickle through in 2007, they would sell for fortunes a pound in upscale East Coast groceries.
The woman who would become one of the best friends China ever brought me introduced me to the mangosteen in the warmer months of 2012. Mountains of those dark magenta spheres were tumbling out the front of fruit stands lining the streets we walked toward our favorite coffee-shop haunts. She had spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka and knew far more about how to choose and eat the fruits stacked in piles in Beijing’s bustling produce markets than I had learned growing up in Minnesota. It was summer in northern China. There were almost no blueberries, few strawberries, and not a raspberry for miles.
I wasn’t precisely sure what a mangosteen was, or how it differed from a mango. She taught me to choose the ones that give a little when pressed, that the hard ones are no good. She showed me how to dig my thumbnail into the rind, to crack open the woody red-purple shell, to peel it away in chunks and pull out the tender white heart, divvied into wedges like a Clementine, soft and sweet and drippy, melting into a single oblong brown seed. We bought bags of them. My fingernails gained a semi-permanent magenta cast, my palms became sticky.
This was the first summer I spent in Beijing.
For a long time, the U.S. banned import of a lot of Thai fruits, including the mangosteen (ostensibly to protect against the Asian fruit fly), and given the fruit’s fussy nature and short ripening window, few are imported from Asia even after irradiation has allowed for a reasonable level of security against invasive pests. A small number of persistent cultivators have started growing them in tropical Western hemisphere locales like Puerto Rico and Hawai’i. The New York Times reported $45-per-pound sales on 2007 Puerto Rican mangosteens in New York’s ritzy health food shops. In China they are an everyman fruit, where a handful of yuan will get you a bagful in the right season, instead of a $10-per-tiny-globe deal. Even with prices dropping some, the logistics seem to be against bringing the mangosteen into widespread popularity in North America.
The mystery fruit
I stumbled upon this fruit up in the mountains of 广西／Guangxi, one of China’s southern provinces. I have not seen it before or since. The sign read 猴头果 houtouguo. Google translate renders this as “hedgehog fruit.” It looked like a giant berry, its drupelets grown large and unyielding.
I asked the vendor how to eat it. She said “like a grape.”
When I was out of the mountains and back in Guilin, I showed the fruit to the woman working at my hostel and asked what it was. She told me she had no idea, and had never seen it before.
I carefully rinsed it and patted it dry, but as I plucked off sections and began to chew, (the outside fibrous and sort of mild ginger-fresh tasting), it occurred to me that “like a grape” might mean the way many Chinese people eat grapes, spitting out the skins, and not the way I was accustomed to eating grapes, skin and all.
At that point I decided to wait to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to me for swallowing sections whole before I continued my experimental fruit-eating.
The passionfruit with its firm-burst seeds was a fruit I’d seen only in beverages, most often chopped up into a beautiful mojito in one of Beijing’s back-alley artisan cocktail bars, and not something I’d encountered whole. I didn’t know it came in small bright-purple spheres, harder than a pear, smaller than an apple. Again, I had no idea how to eat it.
Visiting Guilin was the first time I saw people eating them as they walked, vendors sitting at the side of the road with buckets of them. Apparently one eats passionfruit with a spoon, cutting it open and scraping out the interior, butterscotch yellow tangles with black seeds to crunch through.
She sliced off the top and handed me a tiny plastic spoon. 1 yuan, 1 fruit.
My first week here in Florence has been one, long roller coaster ride of emotions and activities. It has been the most exciting and the most stressful week of my life. Mainly the stress is coming from the hundreds of tours, meetings, and first week adjustments. Of course, we are all experiencing a bit of culture shock, but so far it has all been for the better. Well, except for the showers. I do desperately miss my own shower.
Most people have been complaining about the weather, which consists of constant sprinkling rain and 50-60 degree days. However, compared to the icy, winter, snowstorms everyone is experiencing back in the Midwest, this feels like a tropical vacation to me.
Other than the weather, we have also learned that Italians do not believe in street signs, stoplights, or the phrase, "Pedestrians have the right of way." We keep forgetting that the roads are ACTUAL roads that people drive on. Because they are so narrow with no lines or markers, it is easy to forget that the sidewalk is actually the thing that looks like a tiny curb on the side of the road.
Also, we finally moved into our apartment! Apparently our building is a medieval palace that is mentioned in many history books. It a beautiful apartment, complete with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a gorgeous living room and kitchen. It came equipped with all the essentials (silverware, pots, pans, ect...) and is in the perfect location. We are only a block from the Ponte Vecchio, which is a famous bridge in Florence. If you have ever seen a picture of Florence, I am sure it included the Ponte Vecchio. My walk to school resides along the river, and we are far enough away from the tourist area to be mainly surrounded by locals. The best part about our apartment is that we are two blocks away from the best thing about Florence: The Secret Bakery.
Now, we do not know the actual name of the bakery, seeing as it is only open between the hours of 2 and 7 in the morning. But we were strolling the streets around 2am (still adjusting to the time difference), and we saw these people emerge from an ally with these delicious looking pastries. So we decided to head down the ally and see if we could find the source.
As soon as we hit the right street, a wonderful smell filled the air. We followed it and found a group of about 50 Italians waiting outside a glass door. Though you could not see through the door, so we were not entirely sure what everyone was waiting for.
Eventually, we made our way up to the front and a tiny Italian man with a large white hat popped his head out of a tiny crack in the door. He stared at us and we had no idea what to say, so I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, "Chocolate?" He nodded, closed the door and disappeared for about five minutes.
When he returned, he handed us each a bag in exchange for one Euro. We were then yelled at by hungry Italians to move out of the way, so we headed back to our apartment. We opened the bags and inside laid the most beautiful, scrumptious pastry I have ever devoured. My new plan is to open my own secret bakery back in the United States; I am positive it would be a huge hit.
School starts tomorrow and I think we are all more than ready to be on a regular schedule. My classes include: Art, Music and Film, Body Language and Communication Techniques, and Italian. I am looking forward to observing the Italian education style and really falling into step with the local students.
However, tonight we are returning to our United States roots and gathering around to watch the SuperBowl of course. Let's just hope Italians aren't as serious about American football as they are about their secret bakery.
Ten years ago, my oldest sister studied abroad in Galway, Ireland and my family decided to visit her. During our time there, though I was only eleven years old, I realized how much I wanted to have the exact same experience; and the countdown began in years. Eventually the countdown turned to months, months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days, and days finally turned to hours. As I finished packing (and by packing, I mean cramming as much stuff as possible into my overflowing suitcase), I realized that it was finally happening. I was actually going to live in a foreign country for four whole months. As this hit me, stories my sister had told me, advice I had recieved, and thoughts of gelato and spaghetti raced through my mind at full speed. On the way to the airport, I started to have the expected anxiety any study abroad student may have. I started worrying about my flight being on time, the things I had forgotten to pack, and not knowing how to scream, "help!" in Italian. Mostly, I worried about how much I was going to miss the two people sitting in the front sit arguing over the quickest way to get to the airport; my parents. They have been extremely supportive of this ever since I was an eleven year old belly up to the bar in Ireland. I couldn't even imagine doing this without them.
I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, though I am originally from Fridley, Minnesota. Originally, my plan was to go to Ireland. But I realized that studying abroad is all about stepping away from your comfort zone and really putting yourself out there. So I decided to go to Italy last year, after reading about the culture, landmarks, and people. After deciding Rome was too dangerous, I settled on Florence and was very much supported. Florence also happened to have my program: Communication Studies (emphasis in Professional and Organizational Communication and a minor in Interpersonal Studies). I also knew that Italy's location made it much easier to travel around Europe, which I would really like to do a lot of.
I thought about last year, when I had made that decision as we pulled up to the airport. I couldn't believe that after all this time preparing and packing, the time had finally come.
As we prepared to say goodbye, my parents and I distracted ourselves with advice on pick pockets, gelato flavors, and the outrageous exchange rate. Eventually, it was time to part ways and I turned to hug my mother.
"No crying," I warned her.
"I promise," she reassured me. Then she pulled me into a big hug, one of those hugs only moms know how to give, and told me how excited she was for me and that she was always only a phonecall away. I couldn't help it, though I am not usually an overly emotional person, tears slowly spilled down my cheeks and onto my mom's jacket.
My dad then pulled me into a hug and told me how proud he was of me and that I had good instincts, so I should follow them. My father's words instilled enough courage in me to finally let go and wave goodbye as I headed through security.
While putting my shoes on at the end of security, I turned one last time to see my parents. They waved and my father shot me a thumbs up. This was it. I was on my own.
Other than very long, boring layovers and bad airplane food, I managed to make it safely through my travels. I ended up meeting a ton of other students headed the same place as me. We all shared our excitement and anxiety and decided to stick together. And while I sat there on my last plane in Munich, Germany, listening to the flight attendent explain the emergency procedures for the third time, in the third language I had heard that day, I stared out the window, finally realizing that I was in Europe!
We arrived in Florence about 45 minutes later and gathered all of our luggage (shockingly, mine had made it through three transfers!). And by gathered our luggage, I mean we made my new friend, Jon, grab our overweight suitcases for us.
Our hotel was gorgeous, and right in the center of Florence, about a block away from the Duomo. After the most terrifying drive of my life (Italians are insane drivers), I attained my room key and headed upstairs. Just so any of you planning on traveling to Florence know, I think the doors here are literally designed to confuse Americans. I stood outside my room for a solid five minutes before my roommate must have heard my struggles and opened the door. It was a great ice breaker and we both laughed about how it took her forever to figure it out as well. She also explained how she had been sitting in the dark for about twenty minutes before she realized you have to keep the room key in a slot to keep the lights on. We sat around chatting, getting to know each other, but the jet lag eventually got the best of us and we took a quick nap.
A knock on the door woke us up, and I answered it to find my new friend Jon asking if we wanted to have our first Italian coffee experience. So we headed across the street to a little coffee shop that looked inviting enough. I was surprised to find that the menu was actually in English! However, culture shock experience number one: Italians DO NOT wait in single file lines, especially when it comes to coffee. I think we were budged by an entire graduating class; it was every man for himself. Eventually, after about 20 minutes of standing there with our mouths hanging open, a nice, young girl grabbed my arm and got the burrista's attention. I mumbled my order and stumbled over my please and thank you's. Even though the burrista spoke perfect English, I was so intimidated speaking to her for some reason. I felt like everyone was watching me and judging me and all my English speaking American-ness. We paid for our coffee and all but ran out of there.
We strolled down the street a bit, though it was freezing cold and raining. I was about to suggest heading back when out of no where, the most beautiful, wonderful, magestic thing I have ever seen appeared in front of us. The Duomo sat right in the middle of the square, surrounded by picture-taking tourists being unkowingly pick picketed by the nice men selling them flowers and umbrellas. It was so tall, and the details on it were so unique and stunning that it took the breath right out of all of us. We just stood there in awe, in the most beautiful city in the world, staring at this incredible landmark, and I just slowly said, "Oh my gosh; we're in Florence."
After a VERY long orientation that really only convinced all of us that we would be pick pocketed, raped, drugged, and robbed at some point in our travels, we were given a free dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Keep in mind, this was a five-star hotel we were staying at; the kind of place that looks like God, himself built it. So when we arrived on the top floor, we looked out the windows to see the entire city right before our eyes. Everything was lit up and glittering, and right there in the middle of it all, was the Duomo.
Dinner was so fresh and delicious that it encouraged us to try every single thing they offered us. There were about ten plates dedicated solely to cheese and tomatoes, bread by the ton, and of course, pasta. It almost felt like someone wrote down every single stereotypical Italian cuisine and served it to us. The only thing missing was the wine. However, we had our own solution for that.
We decided that since it was the first night in our new town, we would go out exploring and maybe have our first legal drinks! We walked around for about an hour and a half, wandering down long, winding streets full of food, shops, and culture. Everything was so unbelievably beautiful; there were no words to describe it. Pictures didn't even come close to comparing what we were seeing with our own eyes. We were all immediately falling in love with the city.
Eventually we started wondering why we were having so much trouble finding somewhere to get a glass of wine in Italy, until we realized that Italians do not usally go out until around 12:30-1:00 because most pubs and clubs stay open until 5 or 6 in the morning. Despite this fact, we managed to discover a little pub called, "Joshua Tree Pub." Yeah, I'm not kidding; that's what it's called. Apart from the odd name, the pub turned out to be pretty interesting. They were playing 80's American rock songs, but the place looked like a mix between a Mexican restaurant and an Irish pub. We decided to give it a try seeing as everyone in there was so welcoming. We ordered a couple drinks and sat around getting to know each other. There was about seven of us; seven strangers from all over the United States sharing stories and showing pictures of family and friends. At one point, we realized how amazing this semester was going to be. Upon this realization, we held up our glasses and said, "salud!"
Despite this wonderful time we were having, I do have one tip for you; there is a reason Italians do not drink their own beer.
I write this final post somberly knowing that my life abroad in the Emerald Isle is rapidly approaching its end. My academic semester ends in the next few days. I will be on a plane home December 12th after I do final travels with my family, which shall arrive shortly. It feels appropriate to sum up what I have accomplished on this trip (Warning long list approaching!): I have hiked three mountains and reached the highest point in Ireland and hiked in the Alps, I have traveled to five different countries, learned 2000 years of Irish history, literature and theology, deep sea fished, recorded a music video with Irelands leading musicians, tracked down family heritage, experienced the hostel life, lived out of a backpack for ten days, met Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), experienced several Irish pubs, traveled away from family for the first time, remained out of the States for over three months, gained new friends, had five different currencies in my wallet at one time, travelled via train, bus, plan, car, and foot in one day, ate a full Irish breakfast, learned how to cook without the microwave or frozen pizza, wrote this blog, tested myself on a ropes course, learned the words fortnight and penultimate, learned great card games, lessened dependence on electronics, wrote letters with a pen (mind blowing I know), mastered the Tube in London, became more sustainable, read several good books,went to nearly every corner of Ireland, tried several news foods, discussed the ramifications of a post-colonial society and neo colonialism, watched the sun set over Spiddal, and most of all I have had a most wonderful experience on this adventure in my life.
I look back on all that I have done and it is remarkable. Three months ago I arrived on the island not knowing what to expect. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I could not be happier about that. Some advice to any who are thinking about studying abroad is, do it. It is an amazing experience and I know if I had not gone on this abroad experience I would be kicking myself.
I have done things and changed in ways I may not fully understand. What I do know is I have done many things over the past few months and I look forward to the future, and what can be accomplished with it. While this chapter may soon be coming to a close, another is opening. The question remains, where will it lead? I am ready to find out.
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