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Letters from Abroad

Daniella Pineda, covered in vegemite, reporting to you from Melbourne, Australia.

Already I have inhabited this wonderful country for two months, and let me just say it has had its up and downs. But aside from getting adjusted to a new environment, I have undergone such a massive learning experience, and it is in my opinion that everyone, if granted the opportunity, should go abroad. There is nothing like it.

Now, when leaving the U.S.-call me na’ve-I was preparing myself for a wild twenty-four hour Mardi Gras of sin and chocolates ( I also knew I was going to turn 21 here). Of course when I arrived in Melbourne, I found out the University where I was studying (Uni Melbourne) was not only rigorous, but the 19th best school in the world. I have no idea who rated it, and on what basis, but all the students here love to brag about that one. I couldn’t escape the big books. So my suggestion, if you can, is to take your classes pass-no pass, you’ll thank me later.

Australia is still considered a Western country, but even so I love the differences in culture. Melbourne, of all the cities in Australia, is the most diverse in its population, unlike Sydney. By the way, people in Sydney are really freakin’ tall: everyone’s a sycamore tree with overly stylish hair. (Yes, I’m making a generalization about the people being tall, but what the hell are you gonna do about it? Yeah, that’s right).

In Melbourne there are large Greek, Arab, Chinese, Korean, and Malaysian populations and more. There is also a large Muslim population. The live music scene here is very alive, and like the Bay Area, there is a wide selection of different types of food everywhere! Yum yum!

Okay, next, a big mistake American students make abroad is that THEY HANG OUT WITH OTHER AMERICANS! Don’t do this, it defeats the purpose of visiting another country and experiencing something new. People are going to think you’re lame if you come home and say, “Yeah I just came back from Kenya, and I made so many friends.from Michi-gan.” If you do this I will find you and spank you good.

Recently, Australian President Kevin Rudd made an official apology to the Aborigine people for years of mistreatment and oppression by non-natives. This marked a critical point in history, especially since Australians have been in serious dialogue about issues of racism and white privilege. It’s pretty cool-I’ll turn on some cheesy morning show where people would usually just sit around and drink coffee, and they do that too, but you’ll also hear them discussing race related issues. I doubt Regis Philbin has ever blurted a word about race relations or systematic inequality under that shiny orange skin.

So these are a few things I’ve picked up on since my arrival, but don’t worry, this won’t be the last time you’ll hear from me. In my next segment, I’ll share some tid bits and other tasty morsels on love, the girlfriend/boyfriend issue, and how to find a good study abroad program. Until then, cheers mate!

Letters from Abroad

The BU London Program gave me a welcome present: a student handbook lifted from TimeOut: London. Included is a cutesy but disingenuous article written by a too-chipper girl about culture shock, using obnoxious phrasing about “stages” that didn’t seem to apply.

My first shock, however, comes in the weeks before Spring Break. My plans involve traveling solo (exciting!), trusty Lonely Planet (independent!) in my Chrome backpack (hipster!). And I’m happy. So when an innocuous BU boy announces he will be invading the Mediterranean on Operation: Offend-My-Way-Through-Europe for a mere two thousand dollars, it is hard not to choke on my coffee. Two grand is a sizable portion of my existence in England.

Don’t fret. I always have coffee. I can make passable curries and tagines from canned chick-peas, tomatoes, and bags of couscous. Plus, you can get eight crumpets for 21 pence if you buy generic. But the sting of how many coffee drinks I shilled as my money becomes halved by the exchange rate doesn’t go away. The dollar is NOT going to rally.

The days leading up to Spring Break are full of girls packing overly large suitcases with enough Ugg boots to make up a rabbit hutch. Girls panic about hostels, charge their digital cameras, take cabs to the airport. I am the last person to leave. I fill my water bottle, grab my pack of cigarettes, and walk out the door. To Heathrow? King’s Cross?

To Victoria Bus Station! It all makes sense in my head. Leave London late on Monday, sleep on the bus. By Tuesday, when I arrive in Paris, I will be bright-eyed and bushy-haired.
The internet did not say my bus ride would be en francais, which somehow I took eight years of and yet cannot figure out how to say, “Where is the bathroom?” Around me, people swarm to make their coach. I thrust my ticket to the bus driver who says, “Say Pay.” My bus is not named “Say Pay.” He points to the sign in the bus window: this bus is K and going to Paris. Mine is P (“C’est P!”) and going to Paris. Another mad rush begins onto “P.”

We’re about to leave London when I hear him disinterestedly-yet-agitatedly speaking to French-speaking passengers. I can understand the words “boat” “late” and “two a.m.,” and grin with giggly panic.

Out of London, onto the highways, I stay awake, obsessed with watching the dark landscape go by. Something in me wants to stay awake for the ferry to Dover. To channel my beloved Prince Hal and invade Calais with shining eyes.

My bravado is short lived. Dover is a port. White cliffs, boats, water. Exhaustion kicks in and I’m falling asleep when the bus stops. Thus begins the process of off and on. Off into an anonymous room for passport control. On as we wait the boarding process: the ferry will not leave until 2 a.m. and it is 12:30. Off. I stumble around the port, inviting truck and bus drivers to question my sanity as I take pictures of enormous ferries, signs warning me against bringing feathers into France (Bird Flu), and 100 vehicles lining up for this ferry.

Upon getting the bus on the ferry, we are again, and I zombie my way around duty-free shops and arcades. I pass out on a couch and awake to the red-alert sounds that we’ve arrived and must return to our vehicles. Which involves me dashing around semi-trucks at four in the morning as they rev their engines to disembark.

But sitting in my tiny, cheap hotel room (Hotel Charma, Paris), smoking out my window, I wouldn’t trade it. It’s a better story in person, and I am a fan of insane bus rides. After all, I get two days in Paris, ambling along the Seine, smoking thick, blue-clouded Gauloises. The streets are narrow, the coffee comes in tiny cups. I measure my life in the bells from churches, sugar cubes, the steps to Sacre-Coeur, six floors in the rose-tinted cage elevator to my room. Bread fills my hands, warm and copious, and though it rains, the Champs-Elysees glows kindly as I walk with hands in pockets, not even bothering with my Lonely Planet.

Letters from Abroad

Being a more pagan-inclined person, as soon as I saw a visit to Stonehenge listed on the trips Arcadia offered, I had to visit the famed group of stones. I had some preconceived notions about the place that were quickly shot down by visiting.

Firstly, I had always pictured Stonehenge by a lake or some sort of body of water. I’m not sure what, or rather, which movie gave me that inclination, but when we saw the stone circle in the horizon in the middle of what looked like farm lands all around, I was a little bit surprised at the kind of silly notion that was in my head as I looked at the small flock of sheep herding near the stones.

Secondly, I heard that a fence was put up around it. And in my mind I pictured a six-foot high fence with barbed wire and all the accoutrements separating Stonehenge from a vast amount of tourists by at least an American football field of distance. I was pleasantly surprised to see a half a shin high non-electrical wire fence put around it only maybe a few feet away from the stones. Don’t get me wrong, I was still a little sad that I couldn’t touch the stones and stand in the middle of it and do a little dance or something, but I was glad that I could get close enough to snap a few nice pictures without trying to shove my camera lens through fence wire.

Although I consider myself more pagan and witchcraft-oriented in terms of religion, I’m not actually a very spiritually oriented person, so I didn’t expect the visit to be very mystic, although on the outside I realize that Stonehenge seems to be a very mystical place. It’s always pictured in movies cleverly lighted with some type of aurora borealis in the sky behind it, a couple of shooting stars as well. But truth be told, I didn’t get the mystic vibe so attributed to the stones. It might have a lot to do with the hordes of people that were around me taking photographs and listening to informational walkie talkies. I got more of a mystic vibe from the much older piles of rocks, or bowl barrows, that I saw in Scotland.

I did however get to the gift shop (yes, there’s a gift shop) and I bought my mother a book on Druids, a little charm for another Aunt, and a postcard. I was amused and slightly tempted to buy a pencil case for œ2.50 that said “Stonehenge Rocks!” but in the end I decided against it.

Some part of me, perhaps the most unbelievably American part, thought they should have put some sort of ride there. I’m not sure what kind of ride could be made out of it. The prospect of dragging very large and heavy stones to Salisbury plain is probably as amusing as being kidnapped by pirates in the Caribbean. The more sensible part of myself pulled that stupid idea over to ask it how fast it was going and how much it had to drink. In the real world, it would be a sad day when we visited Stonehenge and saw a roller coaster weaving in and out of the henges and one of the henges chiseled and dyed to look like the golden arches henge. Then of course they’d have to have some large Druid dressed plushy people for the kids and eventually they’d make a movie spin-off about the stones that got left behind. Yes, it would be a sad day indeed.

I find though, when it comes to famous monuments, like Big Ben even, that you’re not allowed to/can’t directly interact with, the experience can be a little jading. You sort of arrive there, take a few pictures, and then don’t know what else to do. Which is not to say it wasn’t fun to see. I was generally excited of course but once I had oohed my last ahh, the experience was pretty much over as quick as it arrived.

Letters from Abroad

Arcadia’s Study Abroad program brought me to London to study this semester, but the first weekend of February brought me to Scotland for an adventure.

Waking up at an appalling 5 AM on Friday, I was anxious to catch my train to London Bridge and the Tube to Kings Cross early, just in case I was late. Managing to survive, I made a pit stop at Platform 9 3/4 for some delightfully nerdy photos before I found the other Arcadians and boarded my train to Edinburgh.

Two tour guides, both with kilts and Scottish accents, met us there. I didn’t have the gall to ask what was under them, as everyone wonders, not only because it’s extraordinarily rude (in any country) but also because I thought it would make my tour through Scotland horrifically awkward.

We took a walking tour of Edinburgh,
learning stories about famous Scots throughout history like Deacon Brody, who was the inspiration for the infamous novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and visiting a spot where many “witches” were hanged. I spent that evening in a somewhat traditional way: in the pub. I must say that being allowed to buy my own alcohol without that whole pesky illegality is quite lovely.

The next day, we left the city and traveled by coach to another Scottish city, Inverness, stopping at several places along the way.

I managed to visit a famous statue of William Wallace, buy a bottle of amazing heather whisky and take some pretty amazing shots of beautiful snowy mountains, all before I would have eaten brunch at home. But the two most novel things I did: visit the infamous Loch Ness and see a hairy cow! I will admit I didn’t go much near the cow since I hold a general survival policy of avoiding things that can trample me to death, but the most enjoyable and chuckling part of meeting the hairy cow was that apparently the Scottish word for cow is “Coo.” The prospect of meeting a “hairy coo” made me giggle at the suggestiveness of it all.

Loch Ness was lovely and larger than you might expect. Did I see the monster? No. But I don’t claim to know that much about Nessie at all.

And of course, I spent my evening in an Inverness pub (called Hootenanny, which also made me giggle) eating amazing Thai food, listening to traditional Scottish music, and having a pint of Strongbow cider. Cider, to me at least, is similar but much better in taste than beer. And yes, I have tried German beer. Still better. And no, I won’t keep drinking it to get used to it.

On the final day we trekked back from the Highlands, where Inverness is, to Edinburgh in a coach, seeing a couple of things along the way. The most exciting was Edradour Distillery, Scotland’s smallest Whisky distillery. We learned how they make whisky with just barley, wheat, and water. And the smell wasn’t exactly bad, more like hot wheat cereal. I bought a small bottle of whisky for my Aunt and headed back on the coach.

Did I try the haggis? No. If I hadn’t known what it was, I probably would have. What I did try was a deep fried Mars bar. Does the thought make your arteries clog? I had one fried for for me for 45 pence (pretty darn cheap as Mars bars alone tend to run around 65p). I tried it and, despite my belief that it might be odd beyond all belief, it was pretty amazing. I wouldn’t eat it every day (just because of the coronary I’d develop) but I definitely recommend it as a culinary adventure for those of us too chicken to try the haggis.

Of course you can’t go to Scotland without thinking about Harry Potter-if you’re a nerd like me. I made do with taking pictures of the Elephant Room, where JK Rowling wrote her books.

I finally boarded the train back to merry ole London on Sunday. Scotland was definitely enjoyable. I’m one of those touristy types who likes tours, learning about history, and then spending my afternoons vegging out in the pub. And if you go, I definitely recommend you do a bit of both because even though my feet are considerably sore from walking, it was a fantastic trip. It might even make me rethink getting up early in the morning… maybe.

Letters from a broad

"Letters from a broad" features letters from Mills women who are currently studying away from Mills. This week we have a letter from Amy Curran, Literary & Cultural Studies major. Amy returned to study in Ireland this semester after a successful time abroad there last spring.

Dear Mills,

I would say that I've been missing you lots this month but I heard rumors you're drenched in rain, so Ireland ain't lookin' so bad after all. Recently a friend of mine who is a Junior, Anna, told me she is thinking about spending a year in Prague next year. I told her that when you spend a semester in a county you really get to know it, but when you spend a year in a place it becomes home. Ireland certainly feels like home. The first semester I spent here involved a lot of running around to see all the sights I could see, going out every night so I would never miss the chance to meet new people, and studying jammed in every free moment I had. This semester has been so much more laid back. I am figuring out how nice it is just to live in the moment. Today in particular was beautiful and sunny, we spent most of it in our backyard playing with hurleys (used in the Irish sport hurling – hitting a small ball with sticks basically), and we just relaxed. I think nothing really beats relaxation. At Mills I know next semester I am going to try really hard to spend a little more time de-stressing – I have been sick every semester of college at least once, and I feel like maybe we just spend too much time running from place to place and not enough time enjoying sunny days and fresh air. One thing I love about Irish students is as soon as the weather looks good EVERYONE comes out of the house, puts aside their books and ignores television (unless a really good match is on) and they play a friendly game of soccer or hurling, sometimes just throw a Gaelic football around and talk. We have beautiful rain-free days in Oakland more frequently then here and it's the rare weekend I can convince a friend to go out and enjoy the sun with me – we've got work, and books to read and papers to write, but really after a day like today my head feels so clear and I feel a lot more focused than usual.

Aside from my lovely day I am planning a magnificent summer. In order to take advantage of my time here I have decided to stick around for the summer to work and then travel. Planning this trip has been so exciting – a friend of mine from home whom I grew up with is coming over to join me and the two of us are going to backpack from Budapest, Romania, Turkey (and tour Turkey as much as possible), and Greece. Considering just about a year and a half ago I had never been out of the country planning all this has been overwhelming and so fantastic. I have had an interest in going to Turkey for some time, there is just so much to see there, so much history and to tell you the truth the more I read these travel book the more I lust for the food! Turkish and Greek cuisine is so amazing. The idea of spicy donor kabob, yogurt and honey, cucumbers and mint, olives and goat cheese… I could go on forever. I just keep thinking of the gorgeous mosques, markets, the warm sun and blue ocean, the ruins of ancient cities and the company of my good friend and the people we might meet and I can hardly wait to get going. But like I said, while I have this great anticipation for my summer plans, right now I am trying to take in what I have here – good friends, the beautiful, rolling green hills outside my window, mild spring weather, and another month and a half to learn as much as I can at college. Last year I did a similar trip to the Czech Republic and it was such a great success I am going all out this time around and spending a lot more time.

To everyone in Oakland I wish you a nice day without rain, and try and smell all the eucalyptus and take an hour or two to drag someone into the sunshine with you. Also, to my fellow Juniors – maybe a lot of this is coming from the fact that as we register for courses for next semester I am realizing that it's our last! Four years goes quickly….

SlA­n go foil mo chairde – bye for now my friends, Amy