Guide to the American Classroom

Howdy friends!

Thus far, my blog posts have touched on my experiences outside of the classroom, so today I figured that it was time to spice things up and reveal to you the behind the scenes scoop to academic life while studying in America. After all, half (maybe even more) of the experience of studying abroad is the whole idea of STUDYING.

For the most part, the education system in America (or at least the one here at UNCG) follows a similar structure to what we are used to at Brock University. For example, a full class schedule consists of 12-15 “credit study hours” which mirrors our 5 courses a semester type thing and lectures run between 1-3 hours in length 1, 2 or 3 days a week respectively. Nothing new there. Lectures consist of a professor teaching and asking questions of the group, assigning readings and homework along the way and throwing the occasional pop quiz. Nothing new there either. The core elements of education are identical which has helped to make the transition to a new institution that much easier. I thought I would be overwhelmed by the idea of GPA’s yet this is proving to be easier than I expected however as I’m sure you can imagine, there are some clear differences that opened my eyes to the fact that “I’m not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”.

One of the new concepts (at least for me) was made clear on the first day of class in the bold, underlined letters in the course syllabus: Attendance is Mandatory and is recorded by the professor at the beginning of every class. Failure to attend 2 or more classes without an excused absence will result in a grade lowering by one full letter grade! Now I know that going to class is a no brainer. From my experiences back home at Brock, I realized that by not going to class I was taking the risk of missing important information; however the idea of having such severe consequences for playing hooky is new and frankly a little scary. I must say though, that the tactic has worked wonders because I have yet to miss a class (and I have two 8am lectures…TWO) It just goes to show you that American schools take education very seriously and want to ensure that all students are getting the resources they need to succeed in their selected fields. Keep in mind that not ALL classes adopt this technique for encouraging attendance; this is just my experience in a few classes.

Another difference that I noticed is that seminars and tutorials are a rarity here. Unlike our system at Brock which provides a secondary component to all classes, very few classes (in all disciplines) have the added luxury of seminars. In courses that are especially demanding, this may help explain the strict attendance policies by ensuring that students are getting all they can out of lectures. Of course, the professors of each class are more than happy to provide feedback on assignments and offer extra help outside of class if you need it, yet the responsibility is placed on student to seek that assistance. We are fortunate to have that opportunity provided for us and it has made me appreciate the support we are provided, (even though we sometimes see it as just more work rather than help…)

By far the coolest difference I’ve noticed between Brock and UNCG has been the usage of the iClicker (not be confused with the iPod/iPhone or any other apple product ha-ha) In each of my biology lectures, to show that I am in attendance, I use this little do-hicky to answer a quiz question for extra credit and it marks that I am present. Isn’t technology so cool these days?! I think it is so neat and definitely a convenient way to track attendance of so many people.

Well that about sums things (even though I just realized that I completely ignored the musical aspect of my academic life….since I am a music student after all lol – I guess I will save that for another time. Spoiler Alert: Practice Practice Practice.

‘til next time

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Road Trip — Washington DC

There is something magical about being a tourist in a foreign city. I can’t quite pinpoint it exactly – maybe it is the thrill of exploring a new geographical area or even the mystery that comes with having no plans or agenda. Maybe it is camera constantly strapped to your hand or interacting with other random strangers when you ask for that special photo. Regardless of what it is, my recent trip to America’s Capital city was by far one of my greatest experiences of all time. First of all, just having the opportunity for a break in the middle of first semester was an awesome concept for me. Normally as Canadian students, we do not get a significant break from classes until Thanksgiving (and even then it is sometimes not enough). In America, the Fall Break is a 5 day vacation in October that occurs midway semester one and while some students used that time to study for their upcoming exams, for me it was the perfect opportunity to travel! Three other guys and a car rental later, I found myself on the road to Washington, DC.

Arriving in the big city was everything I thought it would be. Towering each of the side streets stood massive buildings and historical monuments while various vendors selling hotdogs and t-shirts worked below. Compared to the small, comfortable town of Greensboro that I have grown accustomed to, this place was huge and it took me a few hours at least, to adjust to the busy, crowded lifestyle. For my European counterparts, the change was welcomed – to them it reminded of home. The jumped right into the new environment and it took all of my wits to stay with them as they directed me through the streets. I finally adjusted and after that moment things became more smooth and I was ready to take in all the sights, sounds and sometimes even the smells of Washington.

The first stop on our trip around town brought us to a small white house behind a feeble iron fence. Aside from the fact the building was white and that there was a small crowd admiring the building’s simplicities while taking pictures it did not occur to me that what I was actually seeing was THE White House. Seriously…I’ve watched the movies and even seen my fair share of “The West Wing” – I think I would have been able to know the White House when I saw it and this building did not fit the bill. I guess I expected there to be more grandeur, with several men in black suits standing guard and flags proudly waving form every orifice of the place. My friend attempted to convince me and the two others that were in disbelief that it was what it was. He even went as far as to film us verbally stating that the building was not the White House. It took us asking a security guard down the way for the answer we were all so eager to here and of course it WAS the White House. It was like the hand of the President himself had slapped me across the face. I felt so embarrassed and you better believe that the guy that was right all along made sure to remind the rest of us throughout the entire day about that moment in time. At least it was worth a good laugh. J We continued to make our way to the backside of the White House and Eureka!  That was the White House I had grown up knowing. At least I know that I am not entirely crazy – it turns out that the back of the building is more visually well known than the front anyway so I don’t feel so bad not recognizing it from the front.

The rest of the day seemed to fly by. To save us the hassle of walking around the city (which could have taken us hours to walk from one memorial to the next) we rented bicycles from these conveniently located bike stalls. So not only did I get to see the American Capital, I got to feel European as I did so. Let me just say that I haven’t ridden a bicycle in almost 5 years so things were slow to start off. In the end the bikes were the greatest idea anyone could have suggested. We saw the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Capital Building, Jefferson Memorial, The Korean/Vietnam/World War II Memorials and The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial all in a span of a few hours. You can imagine that pedaling around such a big city can take a lot out of a person – and it did. Once my head hit the pillow of my hotel bed, I instantly fell asleep. What a great way to spend my first ever Fall Break in America!

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You know you’re from Canada when…

We have all heard that Canadians (apparently) have a certain accent that defines us. That comical “eh” sound that gets added to random sentences and who could forget the “oot” and “aboot” nonsense that everyone keeps talking about. Sure, I’ve heard these notions and considered them too, but I was never convinced that I actually spoke like that. I was convinced upon my arrival in North Carolina that I would blend right in with the locals and shock everyone with the fact that I am actually from the Great White North. Since being in the United States, and surrounded by other international students however, I have come to understand the differences in our English speech compared to others. It was a bit of an eye opener for me– in a good way of course – as it gave me another reason to appreciate home.

It all started in my first biology lab of the semester. I had nervously taken my seat amongst a group of Americans and introduced myself. Aside from the Canadian flag pin that I proudly have fastened to my backpack, I gave no clues that I was a foreigner. Or so I thought at least. Things proceeded in an inconspicuous fashion from there on in. We talked about our assignment and the tasks that we needed to do and eventually got to know each other on a more personal level. Small talk led us to discussions about our plans to go out for the evening and the Labour Day and Fall Breaks. All along I was unaware of the seeds of interest that I had planted in my group mates heads. But that is not what gave me away. In our second lab my cultural identity was exposed when nature called and I excused myself to go the “washroom”. For all of you reading, there should be nothing strange to this sentence, right? You understand that my intentions were to relieve myself in the bathroom. Okay, good! Apparently however, the term “washroom” is not commonly used here in the South (it is referred to as the “restroom”) and it is a sure sign that you are not from around there. My group immediately stopped what they were doing and looked quizzically at me before one of them finally blurted out…”Alright, where are you from?” It was quite comical actually and we all shared a good laugh about it because they thought that I was on my way to do laundry or something. Upon revealing that I am from Canada things suddenly started to make sense to them and to help me understand, they informed me of all of the clues that led them to figuring me out

I find it so interesting that during this whole experience, I have really been taught a lot about my own culture, as well as the cultures of the world. You really think you know a place, however sometimes it takes exposure and experiences in different places to help you understand your own way of life. Before coming to America I was under the impression that Canada shared many similarities with the States and that it would be difficult finding the factors that set us apart, however being here the first month has already shown me a great deal. It makes me appreciate the little comforts that we have back home as well as making me aware of slight differences in speech that cause us to be “lost in translation”.

 Well that’s all for now. Rest assured I have many more experiences to share with you- from those in the academic classroom, to musical performances, school spirit events and travelling. Stay tuned…

Dan

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Hey Y’All!

My name is Dan and I am a 3rd year music student at Brock University. Since August (and for the remainder of the 2011-12 academic year), I have been on exchange at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro in the USA studying music, meeting other people from around the globe and exploring the rich culture of the American South .

First of all, for those who are convinced that Canada and the United States are basically the same country, think again. My experience here thus far has really opened my eyes to American culture and it has also taught me a great deal about my Canadian identity as well. Of course, we share several commonalities with one another and often times locals have not pinpointed me as a foreigner, yet like it has often been said, “everyone is a foreigner somewhere” – even when one is so close to home!

I invite you to continue to follow my blogs over the next several months as I share my experiences living in the American South. Until next time….

Dan

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Swiss Adventure

Bonjour! Guten Tag! Ciao!

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Claire and I am a third year Brock student currently pursuing a double major in French Studies and English Literature at the University of Fribourg in Fribourg, Switzerland.

Having been in the country now just over a month, I feel it is time to put some of my thoughts onto paper. While sitting in on my Travel Writing class earlier this afternoon, it struck me just how much things have changed since my departure from Pearson Airport in late August. One month ago, I left Canada and arrived at the Geneva airport accompanied by only two 50 lb. suitcases and a huge sense of urgency to pick up my apartment key before the Off-Campus Housing office closed. I knew nothing about my surroundings, my flat mates or my classes. However, in between scribbling down notes on the Grand Tour today, I became aware of just how comfortable and familiar things have become here in Fribourg.

Things happen very quickly while you’re on exchange. Friendships are made almost immediately and it’s those new friends who help make the transition of getting settled in a new country a whole lot easier. Alongside other ISEP and Erasmus students, we dissected our course descriptions, picked our modules for the semester and navigated all the university buildings until we’d successfully found each and every one of our classes and, in turn, a better sense of understanding of our new environment.

Speaking of our new environment, the city of Fribourg is just as charming as my earlier research on Wikipedia led me to believe! Although it is a smaller city (40,000 inhabitants), a large percentage of the population is made up of students, meaning that there is always something going on. The Lower Village or “Basse-Ville” doesn’t disappoint when it comes to all things Swiss. There in the Old Town, you can find chocolate shops, fromageries and bakeries stacked high with the freshest croissants, baguettes and cream tarts. Although recognized as one of the safest countries to live in, I can already tell that the food in Switzerland is going to pose a real danger to me!

Fortunately (and unfortunately), there is one thing that deters me from buying out a whole bakery and that ‘thing’ would be the high cost of living here in Switzerland. To help put things in perspective, consider the average cost of a McDonald’s meal in Canada: a burger, fries and a drink normally will normally put you at approximately $6 or $7 CND. In Switzerland however, your delicious little Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal costs 12.50 CHF. Congratulations! You have just paid over $14 CND for what you once considered your cheap food option.

Despite the economy, I have a really good feeling about my year here in Fribourg. The people are kind and welcoming (especially those you meet along the hiking trails) and the landscape resembles that of a fairy tale setting. I’ve stocked myself up with travel discounts and train cards so as to better see the country and I’m happy to say that I have already managed to see quite a bit of it (Geneva, Lugano, Lausanne, Bern, Schwarszee).

Travel is constantly on my mind. The University of Fribourg has a five-day break at the end of the month and at the moment it looks as though I will be heading to Paris for that time! But before I go, I’m hosting a big Canadian Thanksgiving dinner for my European friends. I’m one of only three Canadians here, so we’ve got to represent that Great White North somehow! I’ll make sure to keep you updated as the weeks progress! In the meantime, if you have any questions about Switzerland, the University or are contemplating a year abroad, feel free to contact me at cg10go@brocku.ca

À toute à l’heure!

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Travelling to the land of Fire and Ice

Last summer seems like so long ago, but in reality it is only a year gone, one rotation of the earth around the sun, twelve cycles of the moon around the earth. 525 600 minutes ago, I was in Iceland, on a trip of a life time.

I have always had an interest in History, and more specifically in the medieval age of northern Europe, which yes, meant I was obsessed with Vikings.  I have had the opportunity to take some medieval history and culture classes from amazing professors. But never did I think that I would get to study this stuff first hand, but because of Prof. McDonald and Prof. Somerville’s enthusiasm for the subject matter they cobbled together one of the best course I have yet taken at Brock University, MARS 3F50 Heritage of Viking and Medieval Iceland. I had always wanted to travel, but never knew if an exchange was the right thing for me, but this course offered me a chance to travel and extensive background knowledge. We started the course with a month of sitting in a classroom, which I realize does not sound that exciting, but we were studying and analyzing Icelandic Sagas, which are action pact and sometimes hilarious. Without this month of classes, I don’t think I would have ever fully appreciated the history and the opportunities that were presented to me in Iceland.  So after the required month of sitting in a dark room discussing island agriculture and Viking long boats, we set off on our epic adventure, and by we I mean me and 19 other students who were wonderful and just as epically nerdy as me. Iceland was a fairly short plane ride taking about 5 hours to get to Keflavik, where the international airport is located. We landed…on a foreign planet. I am not kidding the landscape looked like it could be from Mars if it had been a few shades closer to red. So, through our jetlag and weary eyes we all stared dumbfounded at this new land we had ended up in as we rode the bus to Reykjavik about a half hour away.

One thing that I most definitely did learn from this trip is that a walking tour of a city an hour after you have gotten off a plane is exhausting and slightly painful, but eventually we were all able to drag ourselves around Reykjavik and see all its sight and sounds from the harbour, to the house of parliament, and city hall to the shopping district we walked it all. This was only a taste of what was to come however; by the end of the trip we had made it all across all western Iceland. I got to see glaciers, puffins, farms centuries old and even a volcano spewing ash (we just happen to visit as Eyjafjallajökul was erupting and closing down all of Western Europe’s airspace). One of the major highlights of the trip was visiting the Arni Magnusson Institute where every academic’s dreams come true. The Institute is a big repository for many, many manuscripts dating from 9th century and on.  Having University privileges we were allowed behind the scenes and were ushered into a quiet room, with one very large table in the middle, upon which sat a selection of some of the finest documents I have ever seen. One particular piece that I fell in love with was Bestiary that was illuminated with the most bizarre animals I have ever seen, some snake like creatures even continued on multiple pages.  That day was spent in quiet reverie of these centuries’ old tomes.

When we travelled the country side we travelled in style… riding in a charter bus from the eighties equipped with something equivalent to eight wheel drive, and boy did we need those extra wheels, we went up and down mountains, traversed  dirt roads  that I swear weren’t really there, travelling far and wide to find natural wonders and historic landmarks. We made it to Þingvellir where the Vikings held parliament every summer and where the North American Plate meets the Eurasian plate.

There was so much more that we did and saw, that sometimes I wonder if it was all a dream, but then I pull out my photos or postcards, or the little bottle of ash I gathered, and it all comes rushing back. The opportunity this class offered me is one I will always cherish, and it has definitely been one of the more unique ways that I have ever visited a country. I truly believe that now I have a full appreciation for not only Icelandic modern culture, but its history and tradition beyond anything I could have ever imagined.

Svifnökkvinn minn er fullur af alum!

-Zoe

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Reflections on a Semester Abroad

My name is Thomas and I have been back in Canada for almost seven months now. I spent last September through December at Keele University in Staffordshire, England. While in Europe I had the opportunity to travel in Greece, Italy, Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Scotland, Wales, and of course, all over England. Before I lose too many readers, allow me an exhortation: If you are reading this and thinking of going on an exchange, DO IT. You will not regret it. If you have never considered going on an exchange, CONSIDER IT. Look at your possibilities. Talk to someone who has gone. I have come into contact with hundreds of exchange and ex-exchange students in the past year and a half, and not one of them expressed any regret about going on their exchange. The only complaint to be heard (and it was heard often) was that the exchange was too short.

It is my opinion that studying abroad has special significance for Humanities students as opposed to those from other departments. What better way to study our subject than to observe humanity in a culture other than our own? What better way to do this than to study abroad? And there is so much about our subjects that come to life when experienced in their own place. As a Classics student, I studied the Pantheon many times, but after having actually visited the place, I can honestly say that no words or images can accurately convey the experience of that temple; my previous knowledge was not useless, but it paled in comparison to the experience. Such experiences add a whole new level of reality to the subject studied by a Humanities student. To climb the Acropolis of Athens up to the Parthenon, walk the ancient streets of Pompeii, glide down the canals of Venice, marvel at the grandeur of the palaces of Vienna, gaze solemnly at the remnants of the Berlin Wall, behold Tintern Abbey at dawn enveloped in the mists of the River Wye, all these experiences are irreplaceable. Western Europe is real to me now in ways that it could never have been before my exchange.

Going on exchange will change you. In particular, it will change the way you see Canada.  You get placed in the midst of a people who don’t do things the way we do in Canada. As Humanities students, trained to analyze and consider, you are forced to acknowledge the differences between your home culture and that of your host country during your stay abroad, and consciously or unconsciously you must respond. The process of change begins the first day you arrive at your destination and does not end until you leave. It is not always comfortable. You will not like everything about your host country. But I promise that you will like a lot of it, that you will learn from it and that you will absorb some of it. Finally, when you limp, exhausted, off the airplane at the end of your journey and view your beloved home country once more, Canada will not seem the same. You will see things so much more clearly, because you have another cultural point of reference: that of the host country in which you lived and studied.

Looking back, it is clear to me now that these are the two great changes that have resulted from my time abroad. Both Western Europe (and especially England) and Canada are real to me now in ways they were not before. Before my exchange I was told that after going abroad you become a better Canadian. I was a little skeptical about how much an exchange could really change someone, but I doubt no longer. I loved (to a greater or lesser degree) all the places that I visited during my time abroad, but Canada really is the greatest country in the world.

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Nägemist Eesti

As I write this last entry, I am somewhere over the Atlantic flying back to Toronto via Frankfurt. These last few weeks since I returned from Georgia have been a whirlwind of activity. With final assignments due, exams to write and most of all, good byes to say, May and June just flew by.

One of the most memorable activities of second semester occurred in May. ESN Tartu (the international student organization), organized a paintball outing. While paintball itself is fun in and of itself, the venue was even better. During the Soviet Union, Tartu was both a university town and a closed city. This was due to a Soviet airbase located just outside of the city, actually about 15 minutes from my home for the past year. This airbase has been left to rot with little visually appealing qualities to it. However, among the three rounds of paintball, first with a small speedball match (my team lost), a capture the flag game (we almost won, but since neither team succeeded, it resulted in a tie) and a capture the hill challenge which we won in the last few minutes after a successful hill charge with my Estonian compatriots, all of whom ran out of ammo before we reached the crest. However, with a truly heroic dive by yours truly, we succeeded. All of this was done while being accompanied by our little buzzing friends, mosquitoes, which came out of the woodwork for all of May and June. An Estonian friend of mine told me that there were 800 different species of mosquitoes in Estonia and that only one bit, however, based on the number of bites everyone sustained, I question the accuracy of that fact.

A group of us also spent a weekend on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. There we saw the sights, barbecued, and fought with the mosquitoes. However, it was a great weekend with many great memories, including walking about 700+ metres out into the Baltic Sea and still being able to stand with one’s head above the water.

Upon returning, the real flurry of good byes began, with many friends going home. As of the morning I left (June 20th), there were probably about 20 exchange students left of several hundred. As a result, many group dinners were held, though you could definitely feel the difference, the spirit of Tartu remained, but the people did not.

Tartu is the city of good thoughts, the quintessential student town. With a thriving international student population populating the fourth floor of Raatuse 22, an exquisitely maintained town that is kept very clean, the thriving night life that the student population of 17,000 brings in a variety of venues and the always interesting interactions with the Estonians. You never know what they will do next, whether it be a boat in the middle of the Raekoja Plats at Christmas for no particular reason (the exact response we got when we asked the man in charge of putting the boat there at midnight on a cold Estonian night in December, to beach volleyball in front of the town hall, Estonians never disappoint.

The city, the students, the experiences, are what made this a truly unforgettable year. Through the ups and downs, I could always count on these amazing people I met to be there, whether the French with great food, the banter about Canada and America amongst the North Americans (of which Canada was severely outnumbered 2 to 12) and the Italians with their bewildering, yet endearing behaviour, to make anyone who was having a rough day smile.

For those that read this and are contemplating doing an exchange, whether for a full year or just the semester, just go for it, though of course I am more inclined to support the full year exchange, allowing you to get the most out of it, see the country in every way. I saw Estonia at 3-5h of daylight during the winter and 2-3h of darkness during the spring. I saw the city covered in snow one night when I went to bed and when I woke up, it was all gone. The little things you see over the year make it that much better. The friends you’ll make on such an exchange will be there for a life time and you will be able to stay in so many cities around the world for free with your new very international network. And lastly, a word of advice regarding travel during an exchange; while every budget traveler in Europe will extoll Ryanair and Couchsurfing (both are excellent, don’t get me wrong), do not forget the rest of the world. My entire exchange, the only ‘traditional’ exchange student trips I went on were 1 day in Stockholm, 2 days in Helsinki and a 9 day trip in the Netherlands and France to visit some friends. Go off the beaten track, discover something unique. Walk down Rustavli Street in Tbilisi, brave the bureaucracy and visit Red Square and get lost in the foothills (anywhere will do, just watch out for dogs). Not only will you be pleasantly surprised at what you discover but in the process you will meet truly amazing people (remember for example, Georgian hospitality). Though wherever you end up, make sure to get involved with everything and travel, but don’t forget the school work (it can sneak up on you).

Though the year is over and I now need to work towards finishing my degree in the next academic year, I am already working out a way to get back as soon as possible, preferably for a longer stint, maybe do a Masters abroad? And with this conclusion to the endless ramblings of a now former exchange student, I bid thee adieu with perhaps the most important Estonian word, Terviseks!

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Returning to Canada

*Reader Discretion: I never intended for this blog-post to be so sad – after all is said and done, I’m happier than I’ve ever been*

I’m still in Swansea,Wales as I type what will most likely be my final blog-post, and I’ll be leaving the UK to head back to Canada on the most fitting date: Canada Day. It’ll seem like the whole nation is celebrating my return; there’ll be celebration, parties, fireworks, and more. Okay, I’m not that full of myself, but I did plan out my trip that way for fun. Do I wish I could stay longer? Definitely, though I wouldn’t come here any earlier than I did (January) because then everything would be different and there’s no way I would ever gamble the spectacular time I’ve had here. With that being said, my emotions have been running wild as ever since the beginning of this month. It’s almost time for me to go.

One of my best friends of my exchange has just left residence and is off to India, where he lives while he’s not at university. It was really difficult to say goodbye, as I expected, but it’s really just a warm-up for me because I already know I’m going to be an absolute wreck when it comes time for me to leave this place. It’s not just this lovely coastal city I’m leaving; no, it’s the amazing people I’ve befriended, and the unbelievable life I’ve experienced here. Excuse my redundancy, I’m just typing this while I’m in this state of mind – it’s not really something I like having on my mind these days.

In a sense, the emotions I’ve been feeling lately have been similar to the ones I felt in the weeks leading up to my departure from Canada to come here. The only difference is that I know what I’m returning to, whereas when I left to come here I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and with who. Some of the best friends I’ve ever had live here, and it kills me to have to leave them soon. Of course I’m going to be happy to see my parents again and all the friends I left when I left Canada, but truthfully I think I’m more bummed out about leaving here than I am about returning home, which should be understandable. Sigh. I actually warned my parents the other day that although I’ll probably be overwhelmed with sadness when I get home, I am still genuinely happy to reunite with them, to which my mother replied “that’s fine, I’m not that insensitive”.

Anyways, if you’re reading this right now because you’re thinking about going on an exchange abroad, please take my simple advice: do it. Do it and you will never regret it. In fact, I’d rank my decision to go on an exchange as the best or second-best decision I’ve ever made. The fact that I feel the way I do about returning home should act as a testament towards that previous statement. The pain of leaving is totally worth it. Or better yet, I suppose it just comes with program. I just feel like that little kid who refuses to leave the playground for dinner time. I don’t want to come down from the monkey bars, and nobody’s going to make me.

Finally, to shamelessly quote something from the movie Annie:

“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

Thanks for reading,
Steve

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At the crossroads of the world

As my trip to Georgia winds down, (the plane leaves in 5 hours), I sit in the hostel waiting for one of the owners to return to first drive us to the hospital for a second round of rabies vaccination. But more on that part later. Georgia is a beautiful country, situated in the Caucuses, is home to some of the oldest human remains found outside of Africa and is thought to be the birthplace of wine.

Our trip began with a 6:30am bus to Riga, Latvia where we met with a friend who studied at Tartu last semester and spent the day wandering around Riga with her, which despite being Latvian, was somewhat of new experience for her.  Eventually we made our way to the airport and began the long awaited flight to Tbilisi. The flight was uneventful and surprisingly, the passport control went smoothly, despite my terrible luck. We met the owners of the hostel we were staying at and they then drove us from the airport to the location. At first, I was a little unsure about this hostel, as we walked down a dark and unlit path off, but once entered into the hostel, the atmosphere, the staff (all air traffic controllers at the international airport), everything, was just unbelievable. This was just a taste however, of what can only be described as legendary Georgian hospitality.

Our first day, we wandered around Tbilisi, discovered that there are no cross walks, very few lights and a rather universal lack of regard for basic traffic laws. This meant that we would cross rather busy streets wherever and whenever we could. We also did a bit of climbing, as Tbilisi is situated in a valley. Our big climb was to the top of a 4th century Persian fortress. This climb was done without any normal amenities one normally assumes would be at a big tourist destination. There were no stairs, very few railings and all the ascent was done on the ruins themselves, anyway you could do it. However, the panorama of the city was worth the potentially hazardous conditions.

After meeting with a friend from Tartu and her sister, we made our plans for the next day which basically meant hopping on a bus to a town called Signagi in south eastern Georgia in the wine region. This bus had a sign, but only in Georgian which neither myself or my roommate could read, but we did make it to the town. Signagi is a beautiful little town situated on top of a ‘small’ mountain and the guest house we stayed in had a wonderful view of the Caucuses, on which the other side was Chechnya. We did some exploring and were told to be back by 7pm for dinner so we wandered around, climbed some more questionable ruins, and got rain dumped on us, before finally coming back for dinner. This dinner consisted of a great deal of Georgian dishes, homemade wine and homemade Chacha (a fruity vodka). After dinner, we tried to find a vantage point from which to watch the sunset but were a little too late as the best spots were too far away so we came back for the night. We ended up drinking wine with the other guests, one person from Korea and two Poles and this lasted till maybe 2am. In the morning, we got up, had another massive meal and then began the 2.5 km walk to a nearby convent. When we got to the convent, we saw this path that went down the side of the mountain and said ‘Holy Spring.” Intrigued, we went down and discovered that this was going to be impossible to climb back up. Most of the path was pure mud so much sliding from tree to tree was required. Once there, we, perhaps somewhat foolishly, drank some of the water from the spring and then started looking for another way up. At the spring with us, was a local man, whose friends drove down to pick us up and took us back to the convent. After the convent, we decided to head back to Tbilisi with a marshrutka (a sort of shared minibus) and we ended up meeting another friend from Tartu for dinner. Georgian food is simply put, phenomenal. You can just keep eating it and it is not until you leave the table that it finally catches up with you.

The following day proved to be terribly exciting. We decided to go to the ancient capital of Georgia. Here there is a church that is situated on top of a mountain that overlooks the converging point of three rivers. Our first stop was the tourist office to find out where this path up the hill was. As we set off in search of this bridge to cross the river, we took many a wrong turn, but finally, we found the bridge. The next challenge was how to cross the highway. We saw no tunnel that went underneath the highway for pedestrians so we assumed that this meant we had to cross it ourselves. Without hesitation, we bounded across the closest lanes and jumped up on the median, where we waited for a reasonably safe time to cross the other side. Finally making it across, we began walking toward the mountain. We asked some men in a field how to get up (ask may be a bit of an overly generous word, we pointed and they gestured), so we followed there directions. We just had to walk around the base to find the path. We saw a flock of sheep with shepherds and dogs so we tried to find a path around. While about 200-300 feet away (which was about as far away as we could get), the dogs decided we were a threat and came running towards us. We tried to stay still and stay calm but one dog thought we weren’t passive enough and went after my friend. At this point, the shepherds who had been sitting, watching and doing nothing, thought this might be a good time to intervene, but not before my roommate got a tooth in the side of his leg.  Naturally, we then made our way back to town to get this looked at, especially since animal bites are a big concern. We headed back to Tbilisi where the hostel owners took us to the hospital so my roommate could get the wound taken care of. After that, we came back to the hostel and spent the rest of the night there, just taking it easy.

Our next day trip also proved to be rather exciting, though significantly less dangerous. We went to Davit Geraja, which is located in southern Georgia, close to the border with Azerbaijan. We went with my friend’s family who drove us there. We got lost in the foothills on the way and inadvertently illegally entered not only Azerbaijan but also a military outpost. We eventually did make our way to the site, after driving for about an hour on a road of pure mud with green, rolling hills on all sides. The site was nothing short of spectacular, with a great view and great architecture. As we made our way back to Tbilisi, we stopped at a roadside restaurant for a Georgian feast. After this, it was as though I wouldn’t have to eat for the remainder of my trip (something was has basically come true).

Our trip to Georgia concluded, both myself and my friend feel as though we will be back someday. With so much to see in this small country, we only touched the tip. But it is not just the sights. The people alone make a trip here unforgettable. The hospitality of the Georgians is remarkable. They easily welcome you into their family and will bend over backwards to ensure you have an amazing time.

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