These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.
Each language class starts with one basic principle: conjugation. Verbs are the building blocks of a sentence, and in order to make any sense at all you must know how to conjugate them. I started taking Spanish in third grade and to this day I still have those six boxes that make up the basic conjugation table burned on my brain. You take notes, you learn, you memorize but then something happens in the third box down: the formal you. I’m sorry, the formal what? What is this nonsense?
The idea of formality in language is something I have been faced with more than once during my travels as I have struggled to switch through plenty of dialects including Dutch, Spanish, and Italian. Now, thinking of being polite is not a new concept to me being that I come from the very state that is known for its kindness, and have a Grandmother from Alabama who has ingrained manners in me since I was little. But then I encountered two separate situations that got me thinking.
Within the first month of living in Italy I had an awesome talk with the housing coordinator of my program about the differences between Italy and the United States, and she was quick to open discussion about formality. She mentioned how using the formal “tu” in Italian creates a space between you and the person you are talking to, which consequently makes it much more difficult for conflict to arise. Usually this form is used in the office or when a person is talking to an elder or professor. It all started as a way of maintaining a sense of social separation but it is now just considered poor manners if you pass an older woman by saying “scusa”(informal “excuse me”) instead of “scusi”(formal). I sat opposite from my housing director trying to think of an equivalent separation in English but could only come up with “sir” and “ma’am” which are rarely used in the mid-west. It was an interesting concept to me—can we establish this verbal separation in English? Or are we losing our formality?
A few weeks later I had the amazing privilege of staying with my friend at her aunt and uncle’s home in Utrecht, Holland. Our ultimate destination for the weekend was Amsterdam, but I gained so much in Utrecht just through simple dinner conversations with her family. The second night of our stay we got into a discussion on the formal you in Dutch—“u”. Once again I was faced with another exchange where my conversation partner was confused with how we convey politeness in English without a formal form. Having a bit more experience under my belt (and wine in my system) at this point I launched into a sermon about how my generation is losing its formality because of the internet. Now why am I openly admitting this on that very medium? Because my trip to Holland was a month ago and, as niave as it sounds, I have changed a lot since then.
So here I am again, pondering how we establish formality in English, and it clicked: it is through the structure of our sentences and the way in which we carry them out. Now stay with me, because though that sounds like a concept that is going to take me a while to explain, it is something we are all aware of. When you run into your friend after class you say: “oh hey girl, what’s up? That psych lecture was cray, am I right?” as you simultaneously stare down at your smartphone trying to think up a word loaded with points for your Words With Friends game (my apologies for assuming all of you are as annoying as I am). But this scene plays out much differently when you walk into your professor. You yank your headphones out of your ears, maintain eye-contact to the point of a staring contest, and formulate a sentence fit for a presentation: “Professor Smith, what a fascinating lecture on attachment and how integrated it is in family systems theory. I definitely want to read up more on Mary Ainsworth’s work—do you happen to have any of her books?”. Communication is 20% words, 80% body language and it is the combination of the two that separate the way in which you talk to all your bros that go by their last names from the astounding educators that populate college campuses like my own. But I have to admit, it is going to be hard to go back and address a professor after lecture without conjugating up as many formal verbs in my head as I can beforehand: "Professoressa--scusi, I mean scusa, I mean excuse me."
Yes, I did just throw a 90’s-esque “not” into the title of this blog. And yes, it was completely necessary because the three days I spent in the coastal plain region of Barcelona were absolutely beautiful; people, sights, culture, and cuisine included. While, in my opinion, three days is simply not enough to take in all the beauty that is Barcelona, I will try to list my top 5 in Barca if you find yourself pressed for time.
1. GAUDI. Are you surprised? In all honesty you cannot walk around Barcelona without catching sight of at least one of Gaudi’s beautiful buildings, but why wouldn’t you want to? His innovative style is enough to make you feel like you are living in a fantasy world. I would go so far to say that I felt the same in Sagrada Familia when 21 as I did in Disney World when 6.
2. PAELLA. And you are hearing this from a vegetarian! Though, the classic seafood paella consists of shrimp with their eyes budding out at you which is quite a treat. Whether it is meatless, drenched in lemon, or a combination of meat, seafood, vegetables and beans, you are definitely rewarding your taste-buds with this dish. I won’t judge--order a whole pan for yourself.
3. PICASSO MUSEUM. I probably sound like a scratched CD (do you like my new-age metaphor?) talking about art all the time but I can guarantee a good time for all in the Picasso Museum. Not only is seeing his work displayed in five adjoining medevil palaces an experience in itself, but the museum is laid out in a fashion that allows you to watch his art evolve. We all know about the amazing contributions he made to cubism, but don’t lie and tell me that style hasn’t made you wonder if you could give a piece of paper to the five year old you babysit and get something similar. No offense P! You are a saint. And I now have an immense amount of respect for the styles that brought you to your final masterpieces.
4. NIGHTLIFE. Now I am not one who insists on getting belligerent in each country you set foot in, nor am I suggesting that for Barcelona but the nightlife is definitely something to at least experience. The main spot I would suggest is along the boardwalk simply because you can sip on your magarita right next to the beach while listening to 80’s American Pop (which is pretty big in Europe right now by the way).
5. WALK DOWN LA RAMBLA. Or just walk in general. At the end of La Rambla is an enormous monument of Christopher Colombus himself (fun fact: he is facing America. How cute). If you are lucky enough to get weather like I did, walk as much as you can. The metro is easy and convenient, but there is nothing quite like the energy flowing through this city. I would even suggest sitting in Placa de Catalunya for a good hour as you soak in the sun and simultaneously freak out/become mezmerized by the amount of pigeons doing the same thing.
I have come across most of these tips by accident. But in general that is precisely what travel is; a bunch of unpredicted experiences that can stir you in ways you never knew possible, good and bad. Travel can make you rich and is something I would suggest to everyone for I have grown more in the past 5 weeks than one year of my life (except for my first year of life. That was a pretty major one. You know, walking and being born and stuff.) But yes, we are in college and we do not have the largest disposable income despite the fact that you managed to score that debatably sweet parking attendant job where you can surf Facebook for hours. I hear you, and I am here to say: a few minutes of reading between the lines of reviews on hostelworld can end up saving you a lot of money in the long run. And sometimes the experiences you are going to treasure happen when you are too engrossed with your first sight of the Collosseum to understand the map and find your way to your apartment or on the bus from the Eindhoven Airport to Amsterdam where you get to take in many sights of Holland that you would have missed with a simple flight and taxi ride to your hotel. So without further adieu, here are a few tips to help you save some loot.
WHERE YOU'LL STAY
Yes, it would be awesome to stay in a 5 star hotel with a breakfast buffet and pool, but honestly do you need it? No. Because all you need is a place to lay your head at night after you've walked 20 miles around a foreign city, which is probably 10 more than you needed to because you got lost. So keep it simple because you're going to pass out whether the pillowcases are silk or scratchy cotton. Therefore:
• Look into hostels. Websites like hostelworld.com and tripadvisor.com are great resources as you can adjust the search to fit your needs. Find hostels with a high rating and more than 2 reviews. In the end all you are going to want is clean sheets and a place to go to the bathroom. You can live without privacy for a few days. Though some hostels do have the option to get a private room with a few friends in which case you can feel free to let it all hang out, if you so please. Generally hostels will have lockers where you can keep your valuables. If you are extremely concerned you can bring your own lock for some peace of mind.
• Research apartments. This is something that is extremely overlooked but definitely a great option! If you are traveling with more than 5 people, you will save a ton of money by getting an apartment together as you will be able to go to a supermarket for enough groceries to last your trip and save yourself from the overpriced restaurants us tourists fall prey to often. (Not that you shouldn't eat out. Definitely treat yourself to the countries native food at least twice.) If you just Google "apartments" in whatever city you will be traveling to a ton of options will come up, and once again you can change up the search to fit your needs. Do keep in mind that you will be splitting the price between however many people are staying there so the price is not as intimidating as the big red numbers you see on the right hand side of the listing.
When it comes to transportation, I tend to just make sure I can get to the country/city and then go from there. When traveling within Europe it is pretty simple to find cheap airfares on ryanair.com and easyjet.com but after some frustrating minutes with your friends where everyone is making the "that's-too-expensive" face you just have to bite the bullet. If you want to go to London and the first weekend in April is your only option then go! Just get there. But of course, there are ways to save once you find yourself starring dumbfounded at Big Ben:
• Walk! Plenty of cities are small enough to walk around. It may take you about 40 minutes to get across all of Edinburgh but then you can get in enough pictures of the sights! I'm learning more and more each day that it is just part of European culture to walk. The streets aren't built for your average SUV, plus traffic in general is crazy. It isn't that difficult, you just need to plan accordingly. Take the bus/metro/tram out to the part of the city where you're going to spend the majority of the day and finish activities there, and then move on to a new area the next day.
• Public transportation. I cannot stress this enough. Taxis are ridiculously overpriced. They do make sense to take if you have a ton of luggage or your heel is bleeding, but try to use them sparingly. Do as the locals do, as it is much cheaper otherwise they wouldn't do it. Cities like Paris and Rome have extremely convenient metro lines that are very easy to use once you figure them out and if you purchase a pass for a few days at a time you'll save in the long run.
• Safety first. Seriously. Even if you aren't a travel novice it is smart to always be aware of yourself and your belongings. Where there are tourists, there are pickpockets. Believe me, I learned the hard way. And I was completely aware of my bag and belongings during the moments leading up to it. That being said, I probably could have thought things through a little more. If you have a credit card be sure to bring a backup and keep it in a different place than your original. That way if you lose the latter you won't be without money for 2 weeks in a foreign country while you wait for your replacement to be shipped across the sea. Also, consider getting a money belt. You might feel silly with a pouch under your shirt but at least you know your belongings are close.
• Always have a map on you. And memorize the address of your hostel or apartment. That way if you do end up getting separated from the group you're traveling with (as I did at a very large Dutch market) you will have a map and thus knowledge on how to meet back up with them. Maps really don't cost that much as plenty of airports, train stations, and souvenir shops have them but if you're really feeling a hole in your pocket I have learned that if you go into a hotel and say you're lost and trying to find a certain landmark, you may end up getting a free map. Of course don't expect to be treated like royalty or even receive one, but it's worth a try.
• Stay positive. Most of your time will be spent mesmerized and in love with the country you're in, but sometimes you'll come across situations that leave you confused or uncomfortable. Don't panic. You're just experiencing another culture, and it is completely normal to feel whatever it is your body decides to. In moments like this though, just stay positive and keep going. It's easy to get homesick or over-analyze the intentions of that street vendor but you don't want those moments to be the ones of your trip you remember. So look up and realize where you are and that this may be your only chance to be standing in that spot.
• Be decisive. It's easy when you're traveling with others to fall victim to the crowd and do the awkward dance that is "I don't know, what do you want to do?" "I don't care. How about you?". If you know you want to see something, don't be afraid to go off by yourself and see it. Just make sure you set a meeting spot. You're not going to please everybody, so sometimes you're just going to have to figure out what it is you want to do and do that.
Traveling can definitely be exhausting mentally and physically, but in such a great way.
Everytime I go home (or back to Italy) from a trip I feel so full of life, and I'm not one who normally attributes such a corny saying to myself. But you can't really help it. I kind of feel like I'm turning into my mom as I Google inspirational travel quotes, but I'm going to leave you with just that: "the world is a book and those who do not travel only read a page".
Again I find myself awaking without an alarm clock, getting up, and eating a breakfast of fresh-baked bread with Nutella on it along with some tea and milk. I finish eating quickly and get dressed. Today is the day of the Fete, and we want to demolish a stairway on the hillside before we leave at noon. Keith has told me that the Fete is a large gathering arranged by the local hunters in order to share the meat they have gotten. Hunters have spent the prior week participating in the Chasse, (hunting in English), and killed a large amount of the excess wild boar in the area. I am very excited to participate in this cultural event.
I walk outside on this beautiful day and meet Katie over by the old ruin that Derek and Ben have been tearing down. She has already started to remove some of the decayed wooden steps from the hillside, so I get to work on helping her. The wood is damp and rotten, and there are a lot of sharp thorn bushes covering them, so it turns into a minor pain. I go into the shed and retrieve a set of trimming shears to get rid of all the nasty thorns so we can continue our work. With those cleared it doesn't take long to get the wooden steps removed and the rocks carried off that were underneath. Under those rocks though there is a pile of rubble that was used as a base for the stairs, so that needs to be removed next. It takes us until noon to get half of the rubble shoveled up and carted away. We walk inside the house and clean up. No lunch today because we need to save room for the big meal.
Everyone piles into the trucks once we are ready. We take both trucks since there are seven of us. Derek and I take the Hyundai and the rest of the crew loads into the Mitsubishi. The place we are headed is the town of Mouchan, and it is not far away. With me driving we take off following Keith in the other truck. The drive doesn't take long and we arrive at the gathering around 12:30.
I follow the others into the building where the Fete is held. Inside there is a large number of older French people mingling and talking with each other. There must be a majority of the citizens of this area in this one building. This is one of those times where I would love to have a good grasp of the language. Our group mingles around for a while and enjoys some of the Armagnac drinks they are giving out. Soon we make our way over to the tables and find a place with enough room for the nine of us. There are a lot of people here and long tables, but they are able to ensure that everyone has a spot to sit. Derek and Justin have started to have a nice conversation in French with the older couple next to them. I can't understand a single thing, but can pick up a small amount of intent based on hand gestures.
It is another hour before the meal begins. First course is a rather bland soup with noodles in it. Not really the start to the feast I was expecting. Still I eat two bowls worth of it because at this point I am starving. The soup is accompanied by some more wine. After the soup is finished the servers bring out more plates with a meat dish. I'm told that the center slice of meat is a wild boar pâté and there are sausages and lettuce around it. This in itself is very tasty and I enjoy it. The servers now have Armagnac and have been wandering around the tables filling glasses. Next dish up is a stew made from more boar meat along with some sliced baguettes. It is satisfying, but has a weird texture to it. Almost gelatin like. Thankfully they soon bring out the main course, which is sliced boar meat along with a very delicious bean soup. I eat two servings of this easily. At this point they switch Armagnac for a very sweet, peach white wine. The final course is dessert. They serve a peach pastry and it is delicious. I am quite stuffed, and so happy to be here.
After the meal they begin with a meat weighing contest. The mayor of Mouchan is walking around the tables with a haunch of ham and handing it off for guesstimate weighing. The fee to guess is 2€, so I pass. As it turns out a kid probably around the age of 12 wins the prize and gets a nice cricket set out of it. After the weighing a group of people start to gather on the other side of the building. I see a flicker of flame every so often from between the people and I am now very interested in what they are doing. The group and I walk over there and find an old man sitting in a chair with a long ladle looking device that is resting in a steel bucket in front of him. The bucket itself is engulfed in flames. I'm told that it is a tradition after the meal to take a bucket like this and fill it with a mixture of Armagnac, sugar, and lemon juice. Then they ignite the mixture and let it burn until a good amount of the sugar and alcohol is burned off. The man tending to it also uses the ladle to lift some of the mixture about six feet above the pail and then pour it back in causing a very beautiful stream of fire raining down. I'm entranced. For nearly 30 minutes I stand there watching the fire flicker up and down and the mixture slowly burning away. When the liquid is reduced enough that the flame goes out they pour the mixture into large pitchers and serve it up to the guests. I take a glass and sniff it suspiciously. The alcohol nearly burns my nostrils. One small sip and I realize just how strong it is. This is after they reduced it. I can't even imagine how strong the pure stuff is.
By this time we have been at the Fete for nearly six hours. Katie, Ben, and I want to go into town to get some cash from an ATM and try to find some groceries for baking. Derek and Justin have started to talk with the mayor and another fellow, who I later find out is the leader of the Chasse of the Gers, so I let them know we will wait out in the truck for them. Nearly 45 minutes of sitting outside in the truck goes by before we decide to go in and disrupt their conversation. When I walk in I see they have moved to a table and the four of them are in deep conversation. They finish and say good-bye and come out to the truck. As we drive off towards Condom, Derek and Justin tell us that they were invited to go along on the next hunt. That is a great honor in this area.
We arrive in Condom soon after only to realize that because it is now 7:00pm on a Sunday everything is closed. Oh well. We are still able to get some cash, and actually get a rather good picture of all of us on the musketeer statues next to the cathedral. On our way back to the house we get lost in Condom and basically experience the entire town through our truck windows. That provides endless entertainment for the crew.
When we make it back to the house it's only 8:00pm. We sit down at the kitchen table and spend a few hours talking about a wide range of topics from space and the environment, to politics and sex. Overall it turns out to be an extremely interesting evening. Around 11:00pm we all decide to get some sleep and rest up for the work ahead of us tomorrow. I sense more rubble clearing and car fixing is in my near future. As I climb into bed and lay my head on the pillow I think to myself just how great it is to be doing this kind of work and experiencing the French culture from this point of view. Soon after I am floating around in dreamland.
If you are interested in reading about my previous adventures through Europe please check out my other blog.
If there is one thing I suggest to my fellow travel-enthustiasts out there it is to explore the art of the city you are in as much as possible. Of course I am spoiled here in Florence which is quite literally the birthplace of the Renassaince movement housing works like Donatello's Marzocco, Brunelleschi's architecture with the Duomo, Masaccio's work in the Brancacci Chapel and, of course, the statue that destroyed my emotions, Michelangelo's David. Now I wouldn't necessarily consider myself someone who is easily brought to tears by art (animal movies are something else entirely. Homeward Bound? I cried forever.) but as soon as I turned the corner of the Accademia Museum and saw David illuminated at the end of the hallway all the moisture in my body tried to escape through my eyes. I managed to keep myself composed while I decended towards him, not even glancing at the six unfinished Michelangelo statues on either side of me, until I was finally face-to-podium with this very symbol of the Renassaince. It is pretty overwelming as I, a mere 5'6", stared up at this 17 foot sculpture.
You can take a lot away from art, even if you do not know much about the artist or work. David, for instance, I only knew a bit about. Michelangelo is the artist, David is from the bible story of David and Goliath, and sculpture was Michelangelo’s favorite medium. But even if Michelangelo was not one of my favorite artists, and I was not aware of the celebrity-like status of this sculpture, I am pretty sure I would still have experienced an overpowering feeling of comfort. David is not only vast because of his size, but also because of his perfection. Even though his hands and head are disproportionate to his body, I find myself going to the Accademia Museum when I have an hour or two of free time and just sitting in front of the him because of how peaceful it makes me feel.
America does house a lot of beautiful works of art and I try to take advantage of that when I can by visiting local museums, but you cannot ignore the history that unfolded on these European lands both in art, culture, and politics. Not to say that art found in America is inferior, but there is just something so surreal about looking up at the David, in the birthplace of Michelangelo, which is a block from my apartment. I am a lucky girl.
After enduring the theft of my iPhone in Lyon I decided that it may be a good time to take a break from hostel living. As mentioned before I was able to contact a family living in southwest France through the HelpX program. They agreed to house and feed me so long as I return the favor with work on their farm. Seems like a very fair agreement to me. After spending my three days exploring Toulouse my hosts were ready for me to come to their hobby farm east of Gondrin.
As I board the high-speed train in Toulouse I am filled with anxious excitement. I’m not sure exactly how the next couple weeks will go, but I am sure that they will be eventful. The train arrives in the city of Agen after an hour passes. I need to find a bus to Condom, so I walk to the ticket counter and ask when the next one arrives. The slightly rude man behind the counter informs me that the next one comes 9:15. Good, 10 minutes to find an ATM for enough cash. Walking down the street I ask a local where the nearest machine is and then head in that direction. There is a line at the ATM when I get there, so by the time I have some cash I only have a few minutes before the bus arrives. Running back to the station I get there right as the bus arrives. I walk up the steps and show the driver a piece of paper where I have written ‘Condom?’ to which he nods his head and I pay for my ticket. The bus is almost empty as I take my seat and it leaves the station.
The scenery on the way just keeps getting more beautiful. We pass rolling hills with vineyards that look like tiny, desolate forests covering the ground. I can not wait to see where this farmhouse is located. I arrive in Condom around 10:00. In the emails previously exchanged with Deborah we agreed on a 3:00 pm pickup, so I have five hours to kill. I leave the station and walk up the small hill towards the city center. I pass a cathedral on my right that seems to have a statue of conquistadors out front which I find odd. Finding a small sports cafe I walk in and order a cafe latte. I have five hours to spend here, so I find a booth, read my book, and sip coffee. After three coffees and one book finished it is time to walk back to the station to meet one of my hosts, Debs.
Debs arrives and tells me that because her car is broken from overheating she walked from where she works in town to meet me. I can fix that for her and I already feel useful. She says that she is glad to have a mechanic coming to stay at their house with them.
We walk back to her place of work together. As we walk we pass more small shops underneath housing flats. The shops are nice, and I stop in one to buy a gingerbread and raspberry sweet. The mixture of gingerbread and raspberry filling is absolutely delicious.
When we arrive at her work we meet up with one of her colleagues who will give us a ride to the house. He is a nice guy, and we all pile into his old Land Rover Discovery for the trip. It takes nearly 30 minutes to get out to the farmhouse from Condom. Traveling on single lane, dirt roads covered in ice and snow, it reminds me of driving out to my family’s cabin up north. I get a pang of homesickness, and then it is gone, replaced instead with excitement.
As the Land Rover pulls up to the house I am greeted by a quartet of barks and howls from the four excited dogs, eager to find out just who has arrived at their home. Being sure to pet all of them, they return the love and I’m sure they will welcome the addition to the household. The household itself is absolutely beautiful. A few hundred years old, it is built from sandstone blocks and wooden beams. It is situated next to a natural outcrop of sandstone in the hill and is high enough to have a lovely view of the surrounding area of French countryside. Absolutely breath-taking.
I walk inside the chateau and greet the other three help exchange participants. Justin and Katie are both from Canada, and Ben is from England but has spent a great amount of time in Catalonia, (Catalunya in Catalonian). They are all very interesting people and I look forward to getting to know them during my stay here.
After getting to know each other for awhile it is now time for dinner. Keith turns out to be a fantastic cook. Dinner is beef cooked with parsnips, carrots cooked in basil, delicious steamed cauliflower, and red wine. Derek arrives some time after the meal is finished and is able to retell his story about driving back from Toulouse and getting lost. Soon after that Debs and Keith go to sleep and the rest of us stay awake much longer sharing our interests and backgrounds.
The next morning I find myself waking up at 8 am without an alarm to the morning sun, which is unusual for me. My first job is fixing their little Hyundai 4X4. I gather some tools and take a look. I see the signs of a mistake that I made returning to MN from AZ when I neglected to make sure my coolant was good for very cold weather. Debs told me that her truck overheated. The weather has been unusually cold here. The coolant mix was too weak and the lower half of the radiator is almost frozen solid. Luckily, it is a gel still so it had not broken the radiator or anything else. I thaw it, flush and replace the coolant. Her little truck just barely escaped disaster. I feel like a part of the group now that I have added something to the maintenance of the farm.
Work for the day ends around 4:00 in the afternoon. We all wander into the house and clean up for a bit, then head back outside to play some Frisbee in the nearby field. The dogs come with and are extremely excited to maybe, just maybe, get ahold of that Frisbee. When we get out there I find out that Katie actually plays Frisbee for a team back home and she spends some time teaching us all of these different throws we can do. I never knew that Frisbee could be taken that seriously. When we are all tired out, including the dogs, we walk towards one of the taller hills nearby to get some beautiful photographs of the surrounding area. Then we make our way back down the hill because it is nearly time for supper.
Dinner is delicious. We have mashed potatoes, Swiss chard with onions, and oven cooked fish. It is one of the best I have ever had. I drink some red wine with the meal and eat as much as I can until my stomach tells me it will burst if I eat just one more bite. We spend the next couple of hours telling and listening to stories from each other. Derek is working as a forest firefighter back home in Canada, and he tells about a time when one of his colleagues got food poisoning from their terrible cook and how angry his friend was that he had to rest instead of cutting down trees. Ben is very much a philosophical man and is also a fantastic cook. He prefers to sit back and listen to the conversation from the side and every so often interject something either fascinating or absolutely hilarious. Katie and Justin share some interesting stories as well, and I spend some time telling all of them about small town Minnesota and how it is to live in America.
Soon after I am near dozing off, so it is definitely time for bed. I fold out my sleeping quarters from the couch in the living room and cozy up inside the comforter. As I drift off into dream land I realize that my previous expectations will prove correct. The time I spend here will surely be amazing and will make memories for me forever.
If you are interested in reading any of my previous stories feel free to look at my WordPress blog.
Also if you want to do this same kind of work exchange program check out HelpX.
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