The Whole “Studying” Thing

So you know how approximately half of “studying abroad” includes the word “studying” right? Yes, family and friends, I am in a different country and it’s not a vacation. When you study abroad, you do actually have to learn things, maybe even attend class (read: go to class).

I love school. I always have loved school, and some of my favorite moments have been in the classroom with amazing professors studying something that I found absolutely riveting. Therefore, I was so excited for September 8 to arrive in France, because that’s when I started my classes. I imagined sitting in a European classroom (whatever that means) speaking eloquent French with other students from exotic locales, sharing our insights into historical events and current affairs.

Flash forward into reality, and I am sitting in a European classroom (which has a striking similarity to my American ones), speaking elementary French with other students from around the world, sharing my valiant attempt at completing my grammar exercises. Hardly the dream that I had built up in my head.

While I am learning a lot about the French language in my classes, and I have met some  really smart and interesting people, it is certainly not the picture I had painted in my head. Most of my classes are about learning the French language and learning about France, which means grammar, phonetics, communication (oral and written), geography, and literature. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have different types of classes too, as I get to take a gastronomy class where my “homework” was to find and eat three different types of pastries. Needless to say, I finished that assignment and passed with flying colors.

There are a lot of differences between school in the United States, and school around the world. Some of these differences I have found to be overwhelming and frustrating, while some of these differences seem to make a lot of sense. After the first three weeks, I have compiled a list of the things that I have found to be different about school in France.

The statue on the main quad of the campus. It's a phoenix, as the university and the city of Caen have undergone several reincarnations over the last several hundred years.
The statue on the main quad of the campus. It’s a phoenix, as the university and the city of Caen have undergone several reincarnations over the last several hundred years.

1. Time is not a definitive entity. 

I’m the type of person that thinks that if you don’t show up 15 minutes early… you’re late. So when I thought I was going to be late for my 8:30 am literature class, I was panicking. When I arrived exactly at 8:31, the door to the classroom wasn’t even open yet. Most of my professors may roll into class 10 to 15 minutes later than the time printed on our schedules, and sometimes they let us out early.

I also tend to rely heavily on my syllabi throughout my quarter at DU, but when I tried to ask one of my professors for a syllabus, she just kind of laughed and asked me what it was. The closest thing to a syllabus that I have received in Caen is the dates for my exams… written on the whiteboard.

2. University is not “school,” nor is it “college.” 

In French, “l’école” translates to school, but is used to refer to elementary school. “College” is middle school, and “lycée” is high school. While in the US, I use the words “school” and “college” interchangeably to refer to my studies at the university, but whenever I say “l’école” or “college” to my host parents, they give me a quizzical look and clarify that I mean “université” or university.

3. Backpacks are for tourists.

Most of the students at the university use tote bags or messenger bags for class. For the most part, only men or international students use backpacks. This isn’t just for style (although according to one of my French friends… backpacks are not very stylish) it’s actually practical. Women typically use tote bags that have zippers on them because pickpockets target those who have open bags or backpacks, especially on the crowded public transportation, and it’s easier to hold a totebag in your lap on the tram or hold it close to your body.

4. I’m wrong. A lot.

I spend all day thinking, reading, writing, and speaking in French. All of my classes are in French, and all of my interactions with my host family are in French. It’s only natural that when I’m spending approximately 90% of my day doing everything in a different language that I say something wrong a few times. In my phonetics class, my professor has taken to calling the little things I have trouble with “les peculiarités de Zoé.” While at first this bothered me, and I would actively stop myself from answering questions in class out of fear of being wrong, I’ve realized that it’s actually okay and helpful, so now I can really work on those things I struggle with.

5. Who needs to be hydrated? 

I cannot find a reusable water bottle for the life of me. I have been to basically every grocery store, sporting goods store, and a few random home goods stores, and I cannot find a reusable water bottle. I have yet to find a definitive answer as to why that is… but for the most part I think it just because you don’t really eat or drink anything unless you are at a meal. Students don’t eat in class, and you only drink water in class, or coffee in the morning. We get an hour for lunch every day, and it is actually used for lunch. In the US, when I have lunch with my friends we consider it a date, but in France eating lunch with my friends is just something that we do, and it’s a sacred time. You will not find people finishing homework at the lunch table when they are with their friends and a baguette sandwich.

6. I’ve learned the most outside the classroom.

I have loved learning the language in class, and I have met some seriously awesome people from all over the world. However, I feel like a lot of the things I’ve learned about life and living in a different country haven’t been from my grammar class or trying to figure out the different ways to pronounce the letter “e.” I’ve learned about WWII from visiting museums and going to the actual beaches where the Invasion of Normandy actually happened. I’ve learned about William the Conquerer from walking through the castle that’s older than the United States of America (I just can’t get over that) and I’ve learned about different types of French cuisine from talking to vendors at the market. Instead of reading about all of these things in books, I am living them. To me, that is the most amazing difference, as well as the most overwhelming difference, of them all.

Adjusting to college life in a different country has been an adventure in its own right. I have definitely had my moments of sheer panic, where I didn’t understand anything that was being explained to me, and moments of extreme frustration, where it didn’t seem like anything was going to come together for me, but also moments of excitement, when I finally understood a concept that I had been struggling with (I literally gave myself a high-five in my grammar class the other day). However, I have adjusted and have found that learning in French, while more challenging, is also extremely rewarding.

– Zoe, DUSA Blogger

Advertisements

I am NOT a Mzungu

Hamjambo!

Before I came to East Africa, I would have greeted you with “Jambo!” like in Mean Girls.  Now I know better – Jambo is a tourist greeting and is not proper Kiswahili.  The proper way is to say “Hujambo”, to which you respond “Sijambo”.  Or if you are greeting multiple people at once, like now, you use “Hamjambo”.  The more you know!

10478948_10152287319316724_2412664998967915150_n - Copy

 

The view from the beach only a 5 minute walk from where I live

So I’ve been living in Zanzibar for some time now, and it is finally starting to sink in that I’m really here and will be here for the next four months.  When it really sunk in though, was when I saw the stars.  The night sky in Zanzibar is absolutely stunning and has almost brought me to tears on more than one occasion.  I am living in a very dark part of the world, away from a lot of development, so the number of stars I can see is incredible since there’s very little light pollution.  And being in the southern hemisphere, the night sky looks different than it does at home.  When I finally had time to just look at the stars, that was when it really hit me that I’m actually in Africa and this beautiful island is mine to explore for four whole months.

earth night IMG_1318 - Copy

The moon (look really hard!  Just left of the palm) in Paje

Since I arrived here my days have been packed with intensive Kiswahili instruction (4 hours a day plus homework!), special lectures about the culture and expectations of the program, and water time.  After a few days in Stone Town, the main town on the west side of Zanzibar, we headed to Paje (pronounced pah-jay), a resort village on the east side of the island.  This was when I realized how small Zanzibar actually is – the drive from one side to another only took 45 minutes.  The beach at Paje is gorgeous and the tides are incredible.  Low tide can have you walking out over a mile until you see the ocean, and at night, you can see bio luminescent plankton washed up during low tide.

IMG_1406 - Copy

These photos were taken 6 hours apart at high and low tide

While in Paje, we were assigned to visit a local village, about a five minute walk from our hotel, and my group’s personal assignment was to learn about local employment opportunities the locals have.  Using as much of the Kiswahili we had learned as possible, we walked right up to people and started asking.  One conversation we had really made me rethink the entire tourism industry.  We talked to a man not much older than us who worked for an excursion company (kitesurfing is very popular in Paje), and while he loves having tourists come and spend money, he isn’t the biggest fan of the new all-inclusive resorts that have been popping up on the island lately.  These resorts make their money by keeping guests at the resort.  The guests almost never leave and spend money in the community, and business has gone down in the past few years in the island.  He also made a good point about visitors going back home saying that they went to Zanzibar but they never talked to the locals or learned about the culture or did anything but stay at their hotel so did they really see Zanzibar?  All I know is, I’m going to think twice about booking an all-inclusive vacation in the future.

IMG_1284 - Copy

 

We were able to see the poorer side of Paje, just a few minutes walk from our hotel.  It’s incredible the stark difference between the resorts surrounding this village.

On our last day in Paje, we rose before the sun to leave our hotel at 5:30am (which is 11:30 usiku in Swahili time) to head to Kizimkazi, about a 20 minute drive north.  We arrived at the beach as the sun was rising and piled into two wooden boats so as not to harm the creatures we were following.  As we headed to deeper water, we were told to be ready to jump in the water at any second in case there was a sighting so we all got our fins, mask, and snorkel ready (and in my case, my GoPro camera as well).  We heard a “GO GO GO” and we rushed into the surprisingly warm water and I stuck my camera in front of me so I didn’t miss anything.  After the bubbles cleared, I saw some dark figures swimming below me, so I followed their path, and before I knew it, I was swimming less than twenty feet away from a pod of bottlenose dolphins!  It was incredible to get that close to a wild dolphin and they were so peaceful and strong and just beautiful.  I didn’t even know that it was possible to swim with wild dolphins – I thought it was just a Discovery Cove thing.  I took plenty of footage, which you can check out below!

This was absolutely incredible.  The dolphins weren’t afraid of us, they were just hanging out with some small humans watching.

I had a truly African experience a few days ago.  We had an assignment to take what’s called a daladala to different places in Zanzibar and our project was at some old Arabic ruins next to the ocean.  Those were interesting and all, but the really interesting thing was the daladala ride.  Daladalas are basically open-air buses you can take for 300/= (about $0.18) but they pack you in more than sardines, so good luck if you’re even the least bit claustrophobic.  But people are more than happy to move over to accommodate someone else so they don’t have to crouch on the ground.  We ended up sitting in each other’s laps (good thing there were four of us).  Deciding to study Kiswahili on the daladala was actually a good idea because many of the people on the daladala wanted to help us out, especially when we were asked to pay twice.  The kindness of the Zanzibaris is without end, and I’m grateful to each and every one that has helped me in my short time in Zanzibar so far, and I’m sure I will owe them big time by the end of my time here.

daladala

This is a daladala
IMG_1483 - Copy

The inside of the daladala.  This was not even close to how packed we were on the way to the ruins.

And lastly, feel such a sense of belonging to this town and my group of sixteen.  We are recognized walking on the streets of Stone Town and asked how our Kiswahili language class is going and if we’ve learned anything new since we last saw each other.  And one specific experience was when I was at the site of the ruins.  I finally learned how to tie my khanga (a single piece of fabric you tie around your waist and wear as a skirt), and when I walked up to the beach bar, one of the women working there told me “You tie your khanga just like a Zanzibari!” and that was the moment that I realized that I’m no longer a mzungu.

IMG_1459

 

The long yellow skirt I’m wearing is a khanga

My first few weeks here have already been unforgettable, and I’m really coming to understand the meaning of “experiential learning”, and not just having lectures.  Stone Town is beautiful and has so much history, which I will be posting updates about regularly.

As always, thanks for reading,

Baadaye! (until later)

Kim, DUSA Blogger

Up in the Air

I’ve been anticipating the customary semester abroad that the majority of University of Denver students take during fall of their junior year since before I even started college. Still, the fact that I would be living in Seville, Spain starting this September didn’t quite feel real even as I was picking programs and attending pre-departure sessions at our International House. The fact that my next semester will start with a plane ride to a different continent instead of a sweaty day of moving boxes into a new dorm never fails to make me feel like I’m at the top of a roller coaster before it drops: a little scared, a lot excited, and incapable to focus on anything but the certain but unknowable change waiting for me in my immediate future. As summer starts to disappear and I imagine myself abroad, I’ve realized that if I made a Venn diagram of the ‘scary’ and the ‘exciting’ parts of my upcoming semester, I would only be able to fill in that weird, sort-of oval shape in the middle. The only experiences that will be rewarding will also require me to step outside of my comfort zone. No one thing can be exclusively categorized as a ‘fear’ or a ‘hope’ or a ‘goal’ for my time in Spain because, really, they’re all connected to one another. Life, inconveniently, can’t always be separated out into neat lists, but I’ll try to detail the basic parts of study abroad that make me nervous-excited-anticipatory, and will end up making it all worthwhile.

Traveling

Once I get to Seville, I plan on taking advantage of the several side-trips included in my program, which I have heard are essential. These trips I am not worried about – rather, I’m quite looking forward to them. They come with guides and itineraries. The ones I am worried about are the ones I’m planning to take on my own. I am not travel-literate. The first time I traversed an airport on my own was mere months ago, and, even following the signs, I got lost once or twice. When you struggle to navigate a building, trying to figure out how to get around a new town full of foreign signs is sure to be an experience with a difficult learning curve.

Learning more navigational skills, beyond “the mountains are west,” (which, beyond Denver, is useless) is a definite goal for my time abroad. Up to this point, the only reason I arrive anywhere on time is Siri. The Maps app is my guide, faithfully held up to the steering wheel as I squint towards exit signs and try not to turn at the wrong one (rerouting is stressful). In an age where those who are directionally challenged are saved from natural selection by their iPhones, how will I survive without one in a completely alien land? I guess I should learn how to read a real map? Buy a guidebook? Right now I know I’ll have to at least plan my trips in advance – spontaneous travel may lead to spontaneous breakdowns (or kidnapping. I’ve seen Taken). While learning how to get around by myself makes me anxious, I look forward to becoming more independent and confident in my navigational skills. When I don’t have a guide (or Siri) to hold my hand, I will have to rely on my own capabilities to travel. Once I successfully explore one place, the next is sure to be easier. Besides, if I do struggle with getting around new places, something good is sure to come of it. Aren’t the people who get lost in foreign countries in movies the ones that always find the best pastry shops, anyway? Not that I want to plan on getting lost, but with my track record, I’m bound to eat plenty of delicious crepes by the time December’s over.

Though I've heard that Seville is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, I'll miss Colorado sights like this one at King Solomon Falls.
Though I’ve heard that Seville is one of the most beautiful cities in Spain, I’ll miss Colorado sights like this one at King Solomon Falls.

Learning the language

While I’m hoping I’ll actually be able to carry on a coherent, awkward-pause-less conversation in Spanish by the time I return from Seville, I’m also dreading the actual process of attaining that comfort with a second language. Inevitably, before I reach that covetable level of semi-fluency, I will put my foot in my mouth and accidentally tell someone I want to eat their child or something. Not that I haven’t already embarrassed myself locally in my quest for bilingualism. Back in middle school, I may have made the mistake of ordering “polla” instead of “pollo” from a native Spanish-speaking waitress at a local Mexican restaurant. Once I got home and SpanishDict’d what I had actually asked for, my memories of the wait staff chuckling at me from behind the bar became seared into my memory with the clarity of belated embarrassment.

Despite its abject cringe-worthiness, that moment didn’t keep me from pursuing Spanish. As of last quarter I was able to make my way through two novels in Spanish and correctly translate some of the conversations between Mexican cartel members on Breaking Bad without reading the subtitles. Both of these accomplishments, though different in size, provided equal amounts of thrill – I can now make convincing death threats and talk about Emilia Pardo Bazán’s work in Spanish with similar dexterity. The promise of future achievements such as these makes the promise of future missteps worth it. I’m preparing for conversational awkwardness to become a daily reality come September, and my grammatical accidents will become useful lessons and hilarious memories (in a few years, surely – maybe by my forties).

Studying

One of the main reasons I chose Universidad Pablo de Olavide as my school when I applied for different programs was because of the classes they offered. Though the many other facets of study abroad may be initially distracting, my studies are the real reason I’m going to Spain. Which can really put on the pressure, considering I’m walking into an entirely new educational system. My GPA is precious to me as though it’s an extension of my reputation – I will go to great lengths to protect it (I have seriously wondered why they don’t have dedicated nap rooms in the library. I would probably live there if I could). Knowing beforehand that European universities are run differently than they are in the US has already caused me moments of worry, but I am comforted by the fact that my program has dedicated on-site advisors for abroad students. Still, I’m planning on a little stress and confusion before I understand my new routine. And my new university’s library? Well, let’s just say we’re sure to be seeing a lot of each other, if my syllabus’ reading lists are anything to go by.

Underneath the worry I have for my grades is an excitement to begin my classes. When I read the descriptions online for what I would be learning, I already know I will enjoy all the classes I plan to sign up for. The university provides options for both of my majors, though I’ll be focusing on Spanish because of the interesting variety of classes available that I just wouldn’t be able to take at DU. There’s something kind of nerdy but undeniable about the thrill I get looking through class schedules and book lists. Knowing that I’ll be learning about the culture and history of a country in theory while being able to experience the reality of it at the same time is certainly one of the biggest appeals of study abroad.

Even after trying to categorize them, my emotions regarding study abroad are still fairly inextricable: exited-scared-elated, all in one, and about every part of it, all at once. The weeks are ticking down. It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and it’ll be scary, but it’ll also be amazing. I can’t wait.

– Emily L., DUSA blogger

Language learning and Mongolian – a few thoughts

Wednesday we took our Mongolian language final. I may still have the vocabulary of a very small child, but at least I can tell you I rode a horse and milked a cow in four different tenses. Now that the language class has come to an end, I thought I’d share a few pearls of wisdom/random facts I’ve picked up over the last couple of months.

Since there are like three million people in Mongolia, and Mongolian isn’t spoken in any other country, I’m guessing most of you don’t know anything about the language. Which is good news for me, since it means that almost anything I write here will be at least mildly informative.

1. It really bothers me that I’m two months into my time here in Mongolia and I still don’t know how to say “please.”

Actually, scratch that, it’s not that I don’t know how to say “please,” it’s just that there’s no stand-alone word for it. There are more polite ways to say things, and less polite ways to say things. And unfortunately, the less polite, informal way of saying or asking something is usually less complicated than the polite, formal way of saying something. So I only ever remember the informal bits that make me come off a bit clipped and rushed.

2. In Mongolian, everything has a suffix.

Mongolian grammar usually involves slapping a suffix on a word to convey meaning. Examples – possession, as well as the words with, have, by, for, and please, are all expressed in Mongolian by putting a suffix on the end of the word.

3. When in the countryside, you can convey a surprising amount of information just by using vocabulary for various livestock species.

Example 1 – Someone says “sheep” and points to the southeast (“hun” is how you pronounce it in Mongolian). Clearly, this is an indication that your host dad has gone off to herd the sheep. He probably took the motorcycle and will be back shortly, say maybe 15 or 20 minutes.

Example 2 – Your host dad points at you, points at the clock, and then says “horse” (pronounced “mor” in Mongolian). Obviously, it is time to leave for language class. You will be taking the horse. Don’t be late.

Let's herd some animals, ya'll.
Let’s herd some animals, ya’ll.

4. It really is worth trying to learn the language.

A couple of anecdotes:

Maybe about a month ago, a couple of my friends and I were walking near downtown UB, and we ran into an elderly couple. They were here on a mission for a couple of years, teaching English, and they didn’t speak a word of Mongolian. Towards the beginning of their trip, someone had told them that they shouldn’t try to learn Mongolian. They were there to teach English. Learning Mongolian wouldn’t be helping the students at all, in fact it might even be doing them a “disservice.” They took that person’s advice, and didn’t attempt to pick up any Mongolian, because, why bother?

Similarly, I was talking with my UB host mom recently (she’s speaks wonderful English) and she was telling me that on a recent business trip, she had been so surprised to meet an American who spoke seemingly perfect Korean. Why was she surprised, you wonder? Because, despite working with expats for several years at an NGO in Ulaanbaatar, as well as interning in New York for several months, my host mom has never met an American that speaks a second language, besides English. And you know what? She still hasn’t. Because the guy she met, the one who spoke Korean, wasn’t even American.

I’m not trying to make any sweeping generalizations here, but I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t prioritize learning a second language in the scope of their education.  Which is really, really unfortunate in my opinion. And also unfortunately, I am a member of that category. Sure, I’ve taken Spanish classes on and off for five years or so, but I still have little more than basic proficiency.The process of learning a second language is so rewarding – just think how many more people you can get to know and perspectives you can be privy to.

You’ve heard of a bucket list, right? Well, I’ve had “gain fluency in a second language” on mine for about as long as I’ve had a list. And it’s time to put my words into action. One thing I’m taking from this trip is inspiration to redouble my efforts to gain fluency in a second language.

Because I think the importance of it cannot be understated. And because I’m all about walking the walk, not just talking the talk!

One year from now, I’d like to be able to look back on this blog post and be proud of the progress I’ve made becoming fluent in a second language.

What are your thoughts on the importance of learning a foreign language?

P.S. Here’s a picture of a ger, because this post doesn’t have enough pictures….

DSCN1049

Also, check it out! Solar power! A lot of gers in the countryside have these little solar panels they use to power a light, the TV, etc. Pretty nifty, huh?

– Heather Cook, DUSA blogger