Saturday, May 23, 2015

Failing. Falling. Freeing.

If I could sum up study abroad in a single short narrative, I think it would have to be the following:

OH MY GOODNESS. Look - European stuff! I'm such a tourist. . . . time passes . . . Wait, I do cultural things.  I am so a native!

Okay, so maybe my experience on exchange cannot be condensed as such but I bet everyone out there who has studied abroad knows exactly what I'm talking about - that transition from awkward stranger to more self-assured resident.  What study abroad really has meant to me cannot be put into words, but I am going to try my darndest anyway. It's been countless hours of travel, numerous firsts, 27 cities, 10 airports, 6 castles, 3 official hikes, 2 restless nights on trains, and one unforgettable experience.  I wish I could list all the people I've met and what each one of them has taught me but after my lengthy castle post - I don't think any of you are interested in reading another epic.  Plus, I might start crying and I don't want to call the attention of airport security.  So to all the people I met, I must simply say thank you and leave it at that.

At its core, however, study abroad isn't just about the places you traveled, the people you met, or an Eat. Pray. Love. - esque journey to self-discovery.  I still have time to figure out exactly who I am (I hope!) but what I have discovered during my months in Switzerland is my inner strength.  Between the lonely nights, longing for Chipotle, missing family, and language barriers, study abroad is a stressful ball of tangled emotions that leaves you feeling high one moment and oh so low the next. Learning to cope with change in every single aspect of my life has taught me that I have more mental fortitude than I thought. And that the highs in life are most definitely worth the lows.

I'll miss Switzerland and even though I'm still technically in the country, I already want to come back.  You'll see me again, Sankt Gallen!

Can't believe this is the view I will have again soon!
They're calling boarding for zone two and I don't want to miss my plane back to the USA, so I guess this is goodbye.  Or as I would rather like to see it, it's just a see you later.

Until next time, friends.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Castle Game On Point

. . . or my motivations for becoming a princess

Part of traveling Europe beyond the many many churches and cathedrals is the many many castles and palaces.  Given the amount of traveling I’ve done since my last major post, I am dedicating an entire post to the very different castles I have had the chance to tour in the last month or so . . . and then I never want to speak of castles again and I bet you won’t either! Seriously, even though this is a castle themed post and I’m talking about a whopping SIX of them, I’m going to keep each description fresh and unique! And of course, I’ll be including details of my interesting experiences around each castle as well.  I promise!  So please don’t be afraid, don your own crown (or tiara) and dive on in!

Fussen, Germany – Neuschwanstein and Linderhof

There is an intrinsically dualistic nature to the world; it is both a barely traversable vast realm and a seemingly small community.  It would take me a day to travel to Australia but I can contact someone there in mere seconds.  The true significance of such a reality is difficult to grasp.  While on exchange, I have this omnipresent thought that I am far from home (and indeed if you look simply at the number of miles, Virginia is quite a ways away).  However, it is amazing how friends can be found in the most unexpected locations.  I am writing this from my sunny seat on a train to Fussen, Germany.  This small town in Bavaria was not on my original list of desired destinations for my time in Europe but here I sit regardless.  Why? Because it’s a small world.  My great aunt Rollie reached out to childhood family friends when she learned I would be spending a semester in Switzerland.  Not too many emails later I had plans to visit Suzanne Vorbrugg in – Surprise! – Fussen, Germany where she and her husband own a bed and breakfast.  As it’s currently off-season, she was generous and welcomed me for a weekend in mid March.  So as I watch Swiss (or German?) countryside fly by outside the window, my excitement builds with the thought of new friendships and a relaxing weekend.  

Suzanne and her husband were the most gracious hosts I have ever encountered and gave me a connection to my family back in the U.S. before I even knew that I desperately needed one.  Suzanne has a sharp sense of humor, which bids her to do things such as emailing a photo to my mom of Suzanne and I in front of Linderhof Castle with the subject “Castle with proprietors” . . . it made me laugh at least! I wonder what it would be like to actually live in one of the three grand castles nearby.

Neuschwanstein castle is a lesson in the ornate.  Not a single surface has escaped a scrupulous attention to detail and grandeur.  Every inch of the wall sports its very own hue, lines, shapes, and optical stimulation.  All these inches combine to tell magnificent stories – the romantic fairytales in which Ludwig II quite literally desired to live.  The throne room is fit for a King as it should be and it’s a shame that King Ludwig never got to sit there as he died before construction on the castle was completed (some rooms were simply just left unfinished).  The floor boasts a mosaic comprised of over a thousand pieces, which depicts flora and fauna abound.  A peacock shows off his flashy feathers and giraffes languidly lounge while vines circle the scene.  A glance up, past two tons of grandiose brass chandelier, reveals the heaven of the suns and stars.  The walls are decorated al fresco style and the room itself is in the shape of a Byzantine church.  The 12 disciples stand watch and the King of Kings, Jesus, looks down upon where the throne should have stood.  In all the room, not a single space is left unadorned. 

The rest of the palace continues in this way.  The tour walks slowly through the halls, looking with strong intent - trying not to miss anything and instead probably missing almost everything.  The last room of the tour is the main singing hall.  I enter and suddenly stop, most likely angering the people following behind me.  As ornate as all the rooms we’ve visited thus far, this one speaks to me with a more special beauty.  Sun streams through a multitude of windows illuminating a wooded scene as the backdrop to the stage.  The trees lean under the force of an invisible wind and beckon, calling me to come on stage and enter a fantastical make-believe world.  My mind flashes between images of the willows in Monet’s water lily paintings and memories of theater performances in high school.  I wish I could return to the time when musicians would perform in a hall on such a stage and weave tales of love & sorrow, victory & defeat. 

Looking out the grand windows I’m left shell-shocked by the majestic juxtaposition of ornately detailed carvings to rugged, jagged, and snowy mountains.  No matter how beautiful the castle is, nothing man-made, even over the course of 17 years, can compete with something it’s taken nature an eternity to create.  Though Ludwig II, himself, was also a fan of nature. Given his (very intense) obsession with swans, he incorporated them all over the castle – in both subtle and ostentatious ways. It’s almost as if he was trying to create an extra super difficult cereal box game.  Instead of “How many fruit loops can you find in this picture?” it’s “How many swans can you find in this castle?”  Though I kid about his swan obsession, I did pick up a swan shaped tea infuser from the bookshop on my way out.  I just couldn’t help myself! And now I’ll always have a very special token to remind me of my first European castle visit this semester.

Ludwig’s other castle, Linderhof, is actually quite different from Neuschwanstein so now I can see why a King might need two (. . . just kidding . . . it’s all just SO much!).  Linderhof is a caste that Ludwig built to connect to his natural state of seclusion.  A kindred spirit would call Ludwig simply an intense and serious introvert; a critic would call him a mad, obsessive hermit.  I’ll settle for calling him lonely.  An introvert myself, I approve of many design aspects that Ludwig implemented in his castles, especially Linderhof.  However, his addiction to solitude far exceeds any craving I have ever had for peace and quiet – and is at its heart the most maudlin of melancholies.  First is the lack of reception or parlor; there is literally a built-in (or should I really say lack of “built”-in) excuse to retreat for socializing.  Second, Ludwig invented a table that lowered into the floor by a system of pulleys so that servants could simply place the food on the table below and send it up to him.  He wanted to dine completely alone as even servants were seen as unwelcome intellectual interruptions.  And then one of the most famous, and most depressing, rooms is the hall of mirrors.  In a room that can best be described as Ludwig’s study, mirrors cover almost every inch of the walls, creating endless hallways that stretch on and on.  It seems to me as if Ludwig was simply trying to fabricate company, or maybe he just really liked looking at himself.  Either is possible.  Or maybe it was a bit of both.  All I know is that I, for one, find that many mirrors impossibly distracting and quite confusing. 

My trip to Fussen was my first foray into the world of castles during my time studying abroad, but it wasn’t going to be my last . . .

Prague, Czech Republic – Prague Castle

Prague was different from all of my other trips from the start (and Prague castle is distinctly different too) in that I wasn’t just traveling with friends or by myself . . . but with my family.  Yes, that’s right – my lovely family came and visited me for a week because they are awesome (and had a great excuse to come vacation in Europe)!

Cool door as a cool pic backdrop.
Ownin' the view. 

The city of Prague embodies a historical, classical glam that is at first quite appealing but the more time you spend there, the more contrived it seems.   Even the splendor of Prague castle falls short; it is the least castle-like castle I have ever seen (though it is beautiful and interesting in its own way) as it looks like a complex of stoically plain government buildings.  However, in the middle of all the plain stone sits what I consider to be the gem of Prague Castle: St. Vitus Cathedral.  

The cathedral looms above all the other buildings and easily outshines them with its grandeur.  Tall, spindly towers of intricately carved dark stone pose a sinister beauty.  My brother, Ian, and I decided to brave the 287 steps to the top of the South Tower and were met with a breathtaking view.  The entire city was sprawled out beneath us.  Though the buildings of Prague were tiny and distant, we were able to pick out our apartment thanks to the easily spotted American flag of the U.S. embassy waving in the wind nearby.  

What was enthralling about Prague Castle is the history represented there.  So many stories and lives even packed into spaces as small as the narrow Golden Lane where smiths, seamstresses, and tailors alike used to inhabit tiny homes within the castle walls.  Best in their craft, they served the royalty and nobles; it was an honor to reside there.  And the honor lasted even beyond practicality, as the last residents of the lane didn’t leave until the government bought the properties in the mid 20th century even though the little abodes were without a sewage system and electricity.  My apartment in Sankt Gallen isn't that nice but at least it has those!


Budapest, Hungary – Buda Castle

Through the ramparts, the waves of Rohan riders were an astonishingly powerful sight to behold.  Horns rang out in the distance as the defenders of Gondor tried to regroup.  The white stone towers threatened to tumble under the force of the orc attack.  Swords clashed and . . . 

“Now do we want to actually tour and go inside the castle or just walk around? We may be a little castled out.” My mom’s question interrupted my geeky reverie.  Even though I’m not too much of a diehard LOTR (Lord of the Rings) fan, Buda castle bears a stark similarity to Gondor.  


The bright regality of the castle’s walls and towers that stand tall above the rushing, dull Danube river are a grand representation of Budapest’s natural juxtaposition of contemporary nitty gritty against old elegance.  The delicate parliament building sits by the iron casts of discarded shoes – a reminder of the duality of power from protected freedoms to garish genocide.  


And just as there is the contrast between the contemporary nitty gritty and the old elegance, there are also rustic ruins and modern marvels.  This can even be seen across the range of baths in the city from ancient Turkish muddy walls of the Kiraly Bath to the brilliantly tiled neo-baroque ceilings of the Szechenyi Bath. 

The baths were contrasts in of themselves and I spent my time there jumping from hot water to cold to even hotter.  The extremes were oddly comforting and I must admit that I accidentally took a nap in one of them, all the travel finally catching up with me.  Or maybe it was castle overload . . . though I wasn’t quite done touring them yet. 

The family became a little obsessed with cool doors on the trip . . .

Gruyeres, Switzerland – Castle of Gruyeres

I’m taking back every use of the word quaint in this blog up until now, because nothing can compare to just how quaint Gruyeres, Switzerland really is.  After driving through miles (sorry, kilometers) of Swiss countryside, my family and I were amazed at how such a small town could compete with the beauty of its surroundings.  As the town is barely more than a cluster of homes on a hillside, it wasn’t hard to find our accommodation and then the castle from there.  It was a simple walk through the cobblestone courtyard, turn around a bend, and dash further up the hill.

My memories of Gruyere castle are wildly varied.  I think back to the tour and my mind is filled with images of laughing while playing human Pacman in the garden, the breathtaking view of the Alps that loom over the fortress, and a dismembered mummified hand said to be recovered by knights of Gruyeres during a crusade. 

The gardens!
Mummified hand!
My mom and I!
Now where I’d actually like to be a princess is in a small town that neighbors Gruyeres called Broc.  Why? Chocolate. The Cailler chocolate factory was founded in Broc and our tour of the facility was one of the most magical experiences of my life. In addition to seeing chocolate production lines, learning about the history of chocolate, and getting to know the integrity of Cailler’s ingredients, we were also instructed in how to be a chocolate taste tester (can you say DREAM JOB).  We must have tried at least 10 varieties of chocolate.  It was the first time I ever felt like I couldn’t eat another piece of chocolate – but that doesn’t discourage me from wanting to do the tour all over again!

Magaluf and Palma, Mallorca – Castell Bellver

Give Snooki and the Situation British or Irish accents and they’d fit right in here among the neon lights and the salty air.  I think I’d struggle to find someone who speaks a lick of Spanish in Magaluf.  Irish pubs are squished between the nightclubs and “supermarkets” that sell flip flops and floats boasting signs in Cyrillic to attract Russians that I have yet to see.  We arrived late just as stag and hen parties galore began to stumble up and down the main strip.  The next morning presented a calmer and more relaxed town – one that didn’t wake up until past noon. We followed suit in true vacation and because when in Magaluf . . . do as tourists do. It wasn’t until we claimed our spot on the hot beach and I’d lathered on lots of sunscreen (sunburn is preventable) that I took the time to marvel at my surroundings.  I stood there burying my toes in the sand and gazing out at the Mediterranean for moment-less minutes.  I’m searching for the right words to even begin to describe it all.  The water wasn’t just a crisp blue – it was brilliantly dynamic.  The bright sun hit the ripples and bathed the sea in stripes of white light.  Patches of seaweed created pools of navy among the aquamarine stillness, a beguiling illusion of depth. Though waves were absent, the water still moved as spirited fish darted back and forth, their taupe bodies almost blending in with the ocean floor.  The subtle activity just under the surface caused the body of water to sparkle even more.  Relaxing on the beach was just what I needed after my first final exam at the University of St. Gallen.  Strategic Management is one of my easy classes but I’m still crossing my fingers that I passed just in case. 

Not wanting to be a total beach bum in Magaluf, the second full day we were there, Shannon, Sean, and I decided to head into Palma (the island’s biggest city) for the evening after a second stint of beach lounging.  Trading the cheesy touristy atmosphere for a little more authentic Spanish flavor was just the little bit of cultural flair that the trip needed.  We simply wandered through the rambling streets and down the aptly named Ramblas (is there an etymological connection there?).  The bright colors and lingering aroma of seafood paella took me back to the weeks I spent in Madrid, A Corona, and Barcelona more than five years ago. 

Deciding I wanted to see even more of Mallorca’s culture, Shannon, Sean, Ryan, and I decided to wake up early the next morning so we could explore the island’s castle, Castell Bellver, before we had to catch our flights.  It took a lot of mental willpower to drag myself out of bed at 6:30am and even more to climb the 400+ steps up the hill upon which the castle stands.  Getting such an early start meant that the four of us reached the castle just as it opened and for the first few minutes we simply ran around, our heavy footsteps echoing off the stone.  I felt like a little kid playing King of the Hill while looking out at Palma and its port.  The cathedral and sailboats glimmered beneath the rising sun in miniature.

Castell Bellver is unique in its shape; it is one of the few circular castles in Europe.  To me, it embodies the castle I build in the fantasy realm of my imagination.  A tall circular outer wall with large towers and stony ramparts protects the interior castle.  Between the two lies an empty moat that I try to picture filled with waters and dangerous sea monsters (I really hope the Kings of Mallorca were cool enough to fill the moat with sea monsters).  Thinking of sea monsters just reminds me of my upcoming trip to Scotland.  Goodbye, Mallorca! Nessie, here I come! 

A pretty formidable fortress!

Arches on circles. #cray
HSG students take Palma!

Castell Bellver is unique in its shape; it is one of the few circular castles in Europe.  To me, it embodies the castle I build in the fantasy realm of my imagination.  A tall circular outer wall with large towers and stony ramparts protects the interior castle.  Between the two lies an empty moat that I try to picture filled with waters and dangerous sea monsters (I really hope the Kings of Mallorca were cool enough to fill the moat with sea monsters).  Thinking of sea monsters just reminds me of my upcoming trip to Scotland.  Goodbye, Mallorca! Nessie, here I come!


Thus my castle tour of Europe concludes, from zero to sixty (well . . . six) in the span of a few weeks.  I think I want to take a break from castles for the moment and so do my legs.  No matter how different they all are – every castle involved a long climb to reach it.  My quads thank you, dear castles! And now all of you got a little peek into them without the hard work.  I hope you enjoyed! 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Moments in London

Because good things always come in threes . . .


I stumble forward.  I am acutely aware of the pressure from behind and the uncomfortable physical contact on my butt.  Trying to create more distance, I shuffle forward – and then find myself tripping over the person in front of me.  People are pressing in from all sides.  It’s an absolute madhouse.  I breathe in deeply and am immediately comforted by the fragrant floral scents that float through the air.  In addition to lily, rose, and lavender, the robust aroma of coffee also lingers.  In the distance, I can hear a melodious harp and staccato drum that instead of competing for attention join together to create a tantalizing and upbeat rhythm that matches the energy of the crowd.  This is no lazy Sunday morning.  This is London’s Columbia Road Flower Market.  The vendors’ shouts carry over the harp and drum, brashly persuading you to purchase from their stall.

“You’ve never seen a lily as big as this one!”

“I had a bird named Jasmine once but she never did smell as good as this plant.”

“Three bunches for a tenner.  Any three.  Just a tenner!”

The market might just be a tad offensive if you’re named after a flower.  It might be a tad intense if you’re not a fan of crowds.  But it’s worth it no matter what.  Nestled in a row of eclectic shops, the market drenches the street in vibrant color and contrasting textures from yellow, prickly succulents to white, thorny roses to pink, silky tulips.   Disappointed that as a brief visitor to the UK I cannot purchase any of the brilliant bouquets, I still engage in some hardcore window-shopping.  I’m tempted to move to London.  And then blow all my money buying flowers for my apartment – I mean flat.


I’ve found heaven on Earth; I’m sure of it.  I knew it as soon as read the sign, “Welcome book lovers, you are among friends.” And as Ernest Hemingway pointed out, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.”  So yes, this is heaven – for book lovers at least.  Some people may doubt the appeal of a single bookstore but try to see it from my perspective.  Instead of six floors of words and boredom, I see six floors of adventure, knowledge, insight, tragedy, victory, celebration, tribulation, advice, laughs and a cafĂ© that can provide me with a much needed dose of caffeine (traveling can be quite exhausting when you are on a budget). 

I spend the next two hours browsing the aisles upon aisles of books.  I am intrigued by What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.  Is it really possible for an army’s arrows to block out the sun like in the movie 300?  I am delighted by the collection of Sherlock Holmes adventures told by contemporary authors.  What will be their takes on the great detective and will this hold me over until season four of BBC’s Sherlock comes out? I’m tempted by the Breakfast: Morning, Noon, and Night cookbook.  So tempted that will I buy it? Well, yes, actually. I will definitely purchase this magnificent book. Brunch is without a doubt my favorite meal of the day (and is still the one awesome thing that Europe is lacking). 

Some people may judge me for traveling to a new city and then spending hours in a bookstore, but it was bliss.  If you ever find yourself in London, and you are a book-loving kindred spirit of mine, I highly recommended you take the time to drop in Foyles on Charing Cross Road (and any of the other small independent bookshops - first editions galore).  I can’t promise you won’t regret it . . . but I can promise you that personally, I have no remorse.


The lights dim and the crowd hushes.  My anticipation is evident by my sweaty palms and bouncing knee. 

“Naaaaaaasigamyama babi baba . . .” (or really “Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba”) rings out clear and strong, breaking the tense silence.  And thus the Lion King begins.  I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long and the theater geek inside of me squeals with glee.  Finally I get to see this stunning spectacular of a musical!

An elephant lumbers up the center aisle, surprisingly graceful.  A leopard slinks onto stage from the wing.  Birds, giraffes, zebras, and gazelles circle, gathering around pride rock.  And then Rafiki lifts Simba into the air.

Later hyenas cackle, darting in and out of the skeletal ribs of a long dead beast.  Scar lazily flicks his tail as he croons of Mufasa’s demise.

Tragedy hits.  Simba flees in sorrow only to find two new friends, Timon and Pumba.  They dance through the leafy green foliage as they grab grubs and praise hakuna matata.

Nala and Simba fall in love to a sweet melody amidst bright flowers and twinkling stars.  With Nala's help, Simba finds his rightful place at home.

When it’s all over, my hands ache from clapping and I cannot help but hum to myself as I exit the theater.

I just can’t wait to be king . . .

P.S. Speaking of kings, a post about my experience with some of Europe’s castles is in the works . . . please stay tuned!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seeking Vitality

View of Sankt Gallen on my way to Uni!

I guess it's about time I address the "study" part of studying abroad.  Though it hasn't been present in the stories I've shared thus far on my blog, class started a little over three weeks ago and I promise that I truly have been studying abroad.  I may be a business student but I'm a government geek at heart so it has made me exceedingly ecstatic to have the opportunity to take both business and international affairs classes while here at HSG (University of St. Gallen).  My favorite course in which I am enrolled this semester is - without a doubt - my "International Development" class as it will be the most hands on course I have ever taken where I actually get to put learned theory into practice.  The majority of the course takes place in an intensive during the first four days of our Spring Break.  I never thought I would be so psyched to forgo a few days off for more class.  My peers and I are divided into four groups who are each assigned a case regarding integral international development.  After familiarizing ourselves with our respective cases, we have the amazing opportunity to jumpstart our work on them while at the UN and WTO! I'm really really excited if you haven't noticed yet.  I'm team leader for my group which will be studying Sekem, a company based in Egypt focused on sustainable development.  Our task is to translate Sekem's approach to development into a holistic management style that will strongly resonate with their employees.  I've only just begun reviewing the case materials and I'm already fascinated.  Sekem itself is a transliteration of an ancient egyptian hieroglyph meaning "vitality" - that driving life force.  It's the thought of vitality that drew me towards this course in the first place.  I am seeking that passion - the work that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning (a tough task as I am not a morning person and caffeine is the strongest motivator I've found yet).  I want to find a career that embodies everything I love - foreign languages, a constant momentum to improve the world and the lives of its citizens, cross-cultural partnerships, global politics, and, most importantly, amazingly inspirational people.

Taking such specific and fascinating classes this semester is one step in the search for that vitality I hope to one day embrace.  My next favorite class is a masters level course called "Concept of Power".  It's an ongoing discussion about what power really is, where we find it, how to find it, and what it means to wield it.  It means my binge watching of House of Cards Season 3 has actually taken on a critical analysis component as I evaluate Underwood and Petrov's respective power dynamics.  Do you think my professor would let me write my term paper proving that Frank had more power in Congress than he does as President? I swear it would be a thought provoking and serious application of historical definitions of power.  House of Cards - and Petrov's crazy games - reminds me of another one of my classes: "International Politics of Eurasia".  It's a class where I study Putin's crazy games (could the writers of HoC have made the allusion any subtler?) as well as the security and identity issues of the rest of the former Soviet space.  The class has renewed my interest in the region and resparked the enthusiasm I held when I first started taking Russian in high school.  I can't wait to return to my studies of the language when I return to the University of South Carolina in the Fall.  The other regional course I'm taking is "Society and Culture of South Asia".  Though I may be studying in Europe this semester, I'm still trying to learn as much as I can about the rest of the world as well.

Four classes down, which means there are four more to go.  The rest are a little bit drier and more business oriented (if you can't tell I plan on applying my IB degree to professional areas that aren't just strictly business).  These business classes consist of the following: Experimental Methods of Behavioural Research, Economic Development, Strategic Management, and Politics of Corporations and Corporations as Political Actors.  Actually the latter class has only met once so far and I think it could turn out to be quite interesting (combining business and government - yay!). The group of which I'm a member for our semester project has chosen to study corporate social responsibility and multilevel shareholder activism and it's all very reminiscent of IBUS 310 with Professor Ostergaard at USC. I've always been interested in examining how businesses can play a role in development - domestically and internationally.  If that sounds interesting to you, I highly recommend reading an article called "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" as it gives a very different take on poverty - just some food for thought. And I'll leave you with that . . . I'll definitely add more about classes as the semester progresses but for now it's back to traveling (and I guess studying too).

Monday, March 9, 2015

. . . just a little sentimental

It's all in the wrist.  At least that's what they say about skipping stones but I was still struggling to even get one little hop out of a single rock and I swear I was flinging my wrist every which way.  Despite my inability to toss a rock with a little more finesse than a big ole plunk, I was laughing, joking, and smiling so much my cheeks hurt. I was in good company.  Traveling with friends - especially Melody, Tyler, and Patrick -  is a priceless experience.  When you travel with friends, you end up standing on the bank of a river in Basel, Switzerland trying to learn to skip rocks and having more fun than you ever thought you could doing so.

My failure in "eating" a 3 minute egg that
Melody couldn't help but laugh at!
Beautiful Basel!

The churches, the views, and the museums are all amazing - but it's these little moments when I'm so thankful for the opportunity to study abroad. It's not always about the place you go; sometimes it's truly all about the people you meet. Snacking on local foods at Switzerland's smallest brewery wouldn't have been a special time if Melody, Tyler, and Patrick hadn't been there. The same goes for the ferry ride across the river and the beers we had at that bar we found in a beautiful church.  The jokes, the teasing, and even the explaining of cultural nuances among friends - that's what I love first and foremost about being over here. To all my friends and family back home - don't worry I still miss you guys!

Couldn't resist a selfie on the ferry!

The bliss that is the choco kebab . . .
aka the best time for a candid pic.

Toasting the stunning stained glass!
The challenges I've faced and the unforgettable memories I've made have all been shaped by the people I've met.  Study abroad isn't just a story about self-discovery.  That would almost be oversimplifying it.  It's a journey made of thousands of precious moments, choices, and mistakes that end up making a more brilliant you.  For me, study abroad has already been life changing.

It's the time I spent this past Saturday night with my friends Sean, Eliah, and Ashleigh when we talked about the advantages and disadvantages about various forms of government that makes this the experience of a lifetime.  It's Diana who is helping me improve my Spanish while I help her with English. It's Melody and my quest to find a classic New York style bagel to get a little taste of home especially in the face of accepting that brunch is not a thing in Europe.  And I really really love brunch. It's discussing the Australians' love for vegemite with Joe and Josh (both Australian) during a break in our International Development class.

It's laughing, learning, and loving all while thousands of miles from home.  It may be cliche and cheesy but it's the truth.  I'm sure everyone who has studied abroad before will tell you the same.

*Shout out to Ashleigh for being awesome and spelling her name the way she does.  Much love to you from a fellow "leigh"-er. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Frames of Reference

It's as if I've lost all bearings.  Without a frame of reference, up becomes down. Left equals right.  Any attempt to steer simply results in unrealized intent.  All I see is sky, sky, and more sky.  I thought that the sky and the ground, in their constant uniforms, would be my friends.  Feeling betrayed I grapple with reorientation. And then, everything stops.  The world is no longer spinning, my heart is no longer racing, and control once again belongs to me.  The opening of the hatch interrupts the darkness and I exit the flight simulator.  I catch the grin of my copilot, Melody, and we burst out laughing.  It's amazing how fun and fear can unite seamlessly.

The flight simulator at the Swiss Transportation museum in Lucerne mirrors the sensations of studying abroad in an honest way.  As preparation falters, expectations are rendered irrelevant, habits are left useless and once routine actions are formidable obstacle courses.  I'm nearing the end of three weeks in St. Gallen and am finally beginning to establish familiar patterns.  The main train station, the tiny Migros down the block, Uni campus, bus line 7, Stuckelburgstrasse 5 - these are all familiar places to me now and the feeling that I'm a stranger is fading away.  One of the reasons I chose to spend my semester in St. Gallen was because the city wasn't a popular study abroad location or popular tourist destination; it's a place where I can feel comfortable, a place that I can make a home away from home.  

However in my three weeks abroad, I haven't spent the entire duration in homey St. Gallen.  I decided early on to skip the German 2 week introductory course in exchange for some unforgettable memories.  It seemed like a cut and dry choice to me! I've been to Lucerne, Geneva, and Munich - all amazingly beautiful places.  Lucerne is a small town in German speaking Switzerland not too far from St. Gallen.  Quite the opposite, Geneva is all the way across the country right by the borders of France and Italy; it's a truly international city and a symbol of peace and neutrality all around the world.  Munich is Germany at its finest with its stunning architecture and great reputation for classic beer. My trips all varied in distance, duration, and company but each was a special experience.


Lucerne is absolutely magical, magical in that it feels like -1 F when it's only -1 C.  Conversation is stilted because people are too busy shivering to manage polite conversation especially if English isn't their native language.  It'll be a while before any of us are warm and toasty again.  

We slowly stroll along, making our way towards Old Town.  Soon my nose is assaulted with the aromas of sharp cheeses and fresh meats.  The open-air market of Lucerne sits next to the river and though the day is cloudy and cold, the locals and tourists alike leave their warm beds to make a few delicious purchases that are sure to be worth the numb fingers and toes.  At the end of line of stalls, we cross one of the historic wooden bridges almost as old as the city itself.  We walk slowly keeping our eyes on the ceiling as to admire the lovely colorful paintings that adorn the supports of the bridges "roof".  

A St. Gallen student leads the tour and he seems to realize that his quick blurbs about the history of the city fall deaf on most our ears as we glower and glare at the gloomy sky.  He catches our attention, however, when he announces our next destination as an old church, most likely with a heated interior.  The happy bump in mood is palpable as we set off down the cobblestone streets.  To reach the church we must first conquer a large and long set of stairs.  We bound up them, two steps at a time, in anticipation.  All I'm thinking as I push open the large wooden doors is please God let there be warmth.  If there were any place He would grant this wish, it would be here in this magnificent church.  When a wall of heat hits me, I sigh in relief and gratitude.  I am consciously aware of my muscles relaxing as this is the first time in hours my shoulders aren't hunched as a shield to the frigid wind.  And then I finally notice the sacred beauty that surrounds me.  No matter how many churches I see in Europe, I don't think their splendor could ever get old.  

After lunch it's time for the museum where we will spend our entire afternoon.  Most of us have some mixed feelings about this, which isn't unexpected.  However, as soon as I walk into the Swiss Transportation Museum, I embrace my inner elated four-year-old child and I leave my surly "a museum for 3 whole hours?" attitude at the door.  From racing on rowing machines to touring a submarine to playing with toy trains to simply posing for goofy pictures, time passes quickly and just as I'm finished exploring all the museum has to offer (the flight simulator just couldn't be topped), it's time to board the bus back to St. Gallen.  Worn out by the cold and the excitement, I ward off dozing by chatting with my fellow Gamecock, Nick Cannon, about all we've seen so far, the places we want to go, and of course, how much we miss USC.  
One of many beautiful churches I've seen!

Largest collection of road signs at the Swiss Transportation Museum!
As you can see, I'm a baller!

Ready for take off!

We couldn't help goofing around!


The train rounds a bend and there it is: the sun.  It shines above a vast and glittering lake.  I look around and see that the faces of my travel companions mirror mine.  We are all in awe of the beauty.  I think it's the first time any of us have seen the sun since arriving in Switzerland.  St. Gallen has been cursed with an omnipresent overcast haze.  We stare for a few moments before phones, GoPros, and cameras are found so that we can each preserve this beautiful image for years to come. But no matter how many pictures we take, nothing can compare to the real thing. 

It doesn't even come close!

We spend our first afternoon simply basking in the sun's rays while we explore Lake Geneva and the Cathedral de St. Pierre.  Day 2 in Geneva we do something a little unexpected - we release the inner geek inside all of us and get educational.  

We spend the morning at the Palais de Nations - which is home to the United Nations.  It's the largest UN operations site outside headquarters in NYC and also the former location of the UN's precursor the League of Nations.  By some stroke of luck, we arrive just as the office is opening and join the very first tour of the day.  When we reach the Salle Des AssemblĂ©e, one of the oldest and most famous rooms where all the member countries convene, we couldn't help but take a few pictures as if we were the representatives for our home nations, smiling behind the country placards that still sat upon the desks. 


That afternoon we head out of the city to CERN hoping to catch as glimpse of the Higgs Boson, sometimes referred to as the God particle.  Having recently watched the movie, The Theory of Everything, which recounts the tale of Stephen Hawking's life, I'm excited to immerse myself in the world of theoretical physics - not a typical area of interest for me.  I'm soon swept up as our tour guide recounts the history of CERN and shows us the original particle accelerator that ran for 33 years.  

the original collider

Next we get make our way across the complex (by the way, CERN is huge) to see the LHC (aka Large Hadron Collider).  Well you can't actually see it as it's underground and is a ring of superconducting magnets that's 27km in circumference (told you CERN is huge) but you get my point.   Instead our guide actually leads us to the ATLAS (one of several particle detectors) control room where teams of researchers are gearing up for an experiment that will run for three whole years.  Our guide explains that ATLAS looks for fundamental particles, especially those that make up dark matter of which most of the universe is made.  The work at CERN is crazy fascinating and science geek or no, a visit is definitely worth your time.  If you really want to know more about all this stuff, I highly recommend reading "The 4% Universe" which I downloaded to my Kindle upon my return to St. Gallen and has since continued to blow my mind. 

Our first view once we exit the train station.

Lake Geneva

As a lover of sailing, I just couldn't help myself.

 . . . such pretty boats.

Looking out at the city and its lake.

The Reformation Wall

From soaking up much needed Vitamin D to international affairs to theoretical physics, Geneva is my favorite place I've traveled so far! 


The best thing about cities in Europe is their historic town squares; when you don't have a detailed trip itinerary, it's the best place to start a visit and that's exactly what we were doing as a group of sixteen spontaneous students studying abroad.  After arriving at the bus station in Munich, we headed straight for the center of the city: Marienplatz. We wander down the main street until we reach the famous Glockenspiel where we can't resist taking a group photo with the stunning architecture as a background. One could stare at the clock tower's ornate facade for hours. 

Glorious Glockenspiel!

After we've made our way through more stores and hordes of fellow travelers and locals too, we reach the Hofbrauhaus where we dine on wieners and schnitzel and sip beer from steins as big as my face. The beer hall is loud, as it should be, and I gaze around at the crowded tables.  Laughter bounces off the colorfully painted ceiling and wraps the halls in warmth.  The waitresses weave through the tight spaces left between chairs and tables all the while carrying several steins in one hand, food in the other, and dressed in the attire of a quintessential beer maid.   Making plans for the rest of our stay. my friends and I shout at each other across the table, taking frequent breaks to toast everything under the sun.  

In the moment, I don't see how our time in Munich can get any better than this. But it does! The next day, returning from a visit to the 1972 Olympic Park and BMW World, a few of us get separated from the rest of the group on the crowded subway.  Thinking that the game plan was to head back to Marienplatz for an hour or so before catching the bus back to St. Gallen, I tell everyone in our small group to get off there. As we ride the escalator exiting the station, music drifts through the air.  I find myself singing along to "Summer Lovin'" from Grease. Well, isn't that strange? Stranger yet is when we reach the surface and are suddenly immersed in Munich's celebration of Carnival or "Fasching" as it's known in Bavaria, Germany.  For the rest of the afternoon, we join in the festivities even purchasing some colorful bowler hats and confetti from street vendors.  We sing along to accented covers of American artists from the 80s and dance until we can dance no more! What started out as a panicky accident in getting separated from a large group turned out to be the best part of the trip and before we knew it, we had to head back to St. Gallen and leave the fun behind. 


Having fun with friends!