Lesson Six: Giving is Universal

Location: Rabat, Morocco

Now that we’d settled into normal life in Rabat, explored some of the country, and now were used to local practices and the changes that come with Ramadan, it was now time to make Rabat a little more like a home, to feel more connected to it. This was helped primarily by finally becoming comfortable with knowing our way around and confidently not looking like a tourist lost in the maze of streets in the medina. It gave me a huge sense of pride one morning when I was able to walk through the middle of the market and not get any strange glances or curious stares; I knew I was walking comfortably and casually enough to look like someone who lived there and not a visitor gawking at everything. It’s also really nice to be able to greet people and make small talk in darija. It really makes a difference, especially when shopping because it means that vendors realise that you’re not just a tourist, but actually know some of the language and are therefore less easily sold things at more expensive prices. We aren’t just passing through and therefore only have a small chance to find what we want at a good price but instead can afford to walk away and spend the time looking for other options if the price offered is too high (which it always is, I can’t do anything to change my skin colour, which is the first giveaway allowing people to hike up the price). I had a really good time one afternoon after school this week just walking through the medina window-shopping and enquiring prices and bartering in a mixture of french and darija just to see how low I could get the prices, but often not buying anything, confident that I can find a better deal sometime later. When the shopkeepers insist that this is the best price I’m going to find, I tell that I’m in Rabat for a few more weeks so have plenty of time to search harder. They usually have no response. (thinking inside my head: yeah you’re not going to pressure me into buying anything hastily, nice try)


cooling off in the anteroom of a mosque in Meknes

Balglas (Moroccan slippers)

Balglas (Moroccan slippers)

Another thing that really connected us to Rabat a bit more was doing some local volunteer work. First we took plastic bags down to the beach to pick up trash. It was so nice to get calls from males that weren’t cat-calls, but calls of thanks. Multiple people came up to us and thanked us directly, and one bloke even asked if he could help as well. A few people outrightly asked why we were doing this, confused as to why American students would be cleaning up a tiny beach in Morocco. My favourite though was the entire class of schoolboys who swarmed around us and each picked up a few bits of trash to put in our bag on their way leaving the beach.

Then a few days later we went to the Moroccans equivalent of a soup kitchen that makes and serves an iftar meal for those who are homeless or who cannot afford a large iftar. We helped prepare food and set the tables for 144 people. Each table had to be set with dishes, glasses, milk, yogurt, orange juice, a hunk of bread, and napkins, and then we prepared all the plates (with a wedge of cheese, egg, dates, shebeka, those bread cake things, and meat pitas) and bowls of harira soup and set them at each spot in time for everyone to come rushing in. We helped everyone cram into a seat, made sure everyone was taking their fair share, and then went around with tea and coffee at the end. Everyone was very appreciative and thanked up in a variety of languages. However I think that this association has lots of groups come and volunteer for them so the recipients were more used to foreigners helping here. I was in my element because it was essentially a more chaotic and less structured version of the restaurants I work in at home, so it was a brief gap of familiarity for me.

I really enjoyed the fact that we had the opportunity to give back to Rabat a little. People appreciate benevolence anywhere you are, and it was refreshing to be the ones giving; when you’re away from home in a strange place the hospitality  of where you’re staying gives so much to you. And it just reminded me that there is need everywhere in the world. While volun-tourism isn’t exactly the most helpful thing for a place sometimes, there is never a time when you shouldn’t be looking to help people. However, it was mostly just nice to be showing people a good and giving image of Americans. I study diplomacy, but I’m convinced that no matter what relations are like between governments and heads of state, the real international relations is between the everyday citizens.

Sunset over Meknes

Sunset over Meknes

Location: Rabat, Morocco

The Top 5 Types of Things You’ll Notice in Spain

As it would be assumed, Spain and the US have their fair share of differences. While there are an unlimited number of them, there are a handful of things that stick out more than others.

1. Time
Everything is much more relaxed. In certain situations, it’s perfectly acceptable to say you’ll meet somewhere at 8:30 and not show up until 8:35/40. For example, social outings are much looser than things like the starting time of class. That being said, even class is more relaxed. We have a start time of 9 everyday but if someone doesn’t come until 9:05 it’s still seen as on time, not five minutes late.

Siesta takes place every day from about 2-5 and is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to have a break to nap or get ahead on work, but it’s frustrating when I want to go shopping for groceries or whatever else I may need right after school. In the bigger cities that we went to, siesta is less common but still occurs with the smaller, non-touristy, family owned shops. In Ronda, almost everything closes except the hospitals (of course) and the few tourist shops and restaurants near the New Bridge.

2. Attire
EVERYONE WEARS PANTS. ALL. THE. TIME. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is, nor the time of day. ¾ of the people in Ronda are always in pants when you walk around town. In fact, only tourists wear shorts really so it becomes a dead giveaway. Every once in a while you’ll come across someone in shorts, but it’s definitely a rarity. It’s also frowned upon to wear sweatpants or athletic clothes out of the house unless you’re en route to the gym. To this day, I have yet to see any Spaniard wear any at all.

3. House Etiquette
One must not go barefoot in the host house. Wearing shoes is a sign of courtesy—typically they’re slippers, but for the most part I wear flip flops since the weather is warm which makes the house warm.

I have yet to see a window screen. The windows and the doors are almost always open, but without screens attached. I’ve made a game out of getting flies out of my room via the window. It’s been quite successful so far.

In the US, it’s a common thing to see showers that have a mount on the wall but can also be moved out of the holster. My host house has this kind of shower, but without the mount…I put it between my knees every day when I shampoo.


Toilets don’t have actual handles to flush, but rather buttons, which are the most common substitute. At my host house, it’s a metal piece on top of the water bowl that pulls upwards.

4. Eating Schedule and the Food Itself
Food hours are more spread out than ours at home. Breakfast is still in the morning around 8 or 9, but lunch happens during siesta (a break during the day where all shops close and reopen later, meant to be a rest for those who are working to go home and eat lunch and/or take a nap aka siesta) which is from 2-5. Dinner falls between 9 and 12 am. People at restaurants ate between 9-11, but my host family commonly eats around midnight. Meal size is also different. Breakfast is about the same, but lunch and dinner are switched. Dinner is smaller whereas lunch has a few courses. And of course, actual food eaten at each is different too. For breakfast, my host family eats toast with chopped tomatoes and olive oil. Lunch can be anything from tortilla de patatas to soup to sausage or fish or all of the above. Our host mom likes to feed us A LOT. Sometimes I skip dinner because I’m still full from the hours before.

The weirdest things I’ve eaten thus far have been pig cheek and bull tail, both very good and unlike any other type of meat I’ve had. The pig cheek is tender with a lot of flavor, but it’s mostly meat and not a lot of fat. The closest comparison I can give it is a cross between veal and filet mignon. I had the bull tail in a burger and it might be my favorite thing that I’ve tried to date here. It has more fat than the pig cheek but less fat still than an average steak. Bull tail is also very tender but not really comparable to other meats. It’s definitely one to try for yourself. Other people have eaten morcilla (mor-see-yuh) which is a type of sausage made of (get ready) cooked blood and fat. My friends have had mixed opinions of it. A few like it, but most can’t get past the composition or the aftertaste. I’m not brave enough to try it myself, so I can only go by what they say. I guess one can consider it to be an acquired taste.

MILK COMES IN A BOX! Think about a box that soup broth would come in at a grocery store, but a bit bigger. When you buy milk here, it’s on a refrigerate-after-opening basis which is so rare to me. It’s unheard of in the States to let milk sit out for more than a few minutes let alone indefinitely like a juice box. My host mom keeps a few boxes at a time lined up in the pantry. They blend in with the cereal boxes. Apparently it’s perfectly safe to do it the way that they do because it’s very pasteurized, but I don’t think it’s a custom I’ll adopt myself when I’m back home.

4. Atmosphere and Environment
The climate and geography are more similar to the southwest than the northeast where Penn State is. For the most part, the air here is dry with little humidity and greenness is to a minimum. There’s more brush than anything else. When we went to Marbella though, a beach on the south coast, the humidity increased because of the nearness to the water. The north is supposed to be very green as well, so my understanding is that the climate is overall varied just as the US happens to be. (I’m writing this in Madrid’s airport and looking out the window at the mountains and realizing that I probably won’t be here again for a very long time because I’m flying home in an hour and this is extra weird to be leaving after so long—I feel like this place is my second home and even though I’m starting to miss things at my actual home it’s weird to think that it’s all over and this is very sentimental and shall be reflected upon at a later date. TEARS)

5. Miscellaneous Observations
In the US, we pull doors open to enter a building and push them to exit. In Spain, most doors are push to enter and pull to exit. Strange stuff.

Festivities are more frequent and extravagant. There’s a parade at least once a week for a holiday.

Getting married earlier than 35 is considered very young. It’s also normal to live in your parents’ house around that age and older.

There is no set side of the street to walk on. While we walk on the right, Spanish walking has no structure and is more similar to that of pedestrian traffic in a city.

The strangest part to me about all of the things that I’ve noticed that are different than what I’ve been used to in the States is that they don’t seem too different to me anymore. As I wrote this post, I had to think about what wasn’t the same. And I feel like when I go home all of the things that I thought were normal before are going to seem strange. I don’t feel like I experienced a lot of culture shock when I arrived, but I think that the reverse will almost certainly happen. We shall see how it actually turns out.

Round 2

The day that followed Sevilla was a combination of deberes (homework) and siestas (naps). It also happened to be Election Day, which I found to be odd since ours is usually a Tuesday. In any case, we’d seen the current mayor at school the week prior, but she was the only one out of all 10+ candidates that I knew. Our host mom said that they’d know who won around 8 pm. Coincidentally, we decided to go to dinner around that time and when we got to the plaza it was filled to the brim with people and music and a huge procession. At first we thought that they were celebrating the reelection of Mary Paz (the name of the mayor) but later we found out that it was just another festival. That’s the thing about Ronda. There are so many festivals and so many parades that it’s not weird at all for the people who live there whereas for us it’s considered a big event. Kind of like Penn State’s Homecoming parade. There aren’t many things of the sort but when they happen, people make sure to attend.

Children dressed up for the festival

Children dressed up for the festival

A group of people carry a parade piece. Notice the feet down below

A group of people carry a parade piece. Notice the feet down below

Monday and Wednesday of that week we went to dance classes for sevillana, the typical dance style in Andalucia. They took place in the school that we were supposed to have class in which is way across town, but it was still cool to see. The classes were so funny considering that none of us are particularly skilled in the dance department, but we enjoyed it all the same. There are four types of sevillana, and we touched on all of them but primarily the first two. The third and fourth are more difficult, but easier I imagine for those who already know the others. We were also shown some bachata and salsa for a bit on Wednesday but it all turned into some Spanish Zumba, a blessing for all of us double left footers.

Afterwards, we didn’t really know what we wanted for dinner so we all got different foods from a supermarket called Mercadona. I got 2 kilos of strawberries for a euro and a half with some tarta de queso (cheesecake) and tiramisu. Healthy, right? 10/10 would recommend everything EXCEPT the tiramisu. Imagine a puddle of unflavored liquor at the bottom of the cup that soaks into the dessert. While the top was good, I can’t say that the bottom half was my cup of tea. Other people bought chorizo, a type of Spanish sausage, while some had straight bags of spinach. Even though it was a makeshift dinner, I’d have to say that it’s one of the best we had.

Posing in clothes from sevillana with tiramisu in hand

Posing in clothes from sevillana with tiramisu in hand

Waiting for Madrid

Since one of our activities got canceled that week, we had free days on Thursday and Friday where we caught up on all of our homework and took advantage of siestas. But Saturday was the day. With a 7:30 am bus call, we were off to the country’s renowned capital and couldn’t be more excited.

The trip in itself was 6 hours, but it took us 8 because the bus driver was required to take breaks. His name was Ángel. Complete with our Ho-o-o-ola’s and counting system (everyone gets a number and we count off to make sure that we have the whole group when we’re on excursions), we loved him.

Once we arrived, one thing was clear–Madrid is HUGE. The hotel we stayed at was part of NH Collection and called Paseo del Prado near a fountain by the name of Neptune.

View from the top of the hotel

View from the top of the hotel

The beautiful shower with the head mounted on the wall (aka no need to hold it while showering)

The beautiful shower with the head mounted on the wall (aka no need to hold it while showering…more on this later)

Fountain of Neptune from the bus window on the way to the hotel

Fountain of Neptune from the bus window on the way to the hotel


After some naps, we headed out for a walk around the town. We saw some very important landmarks like Kilometro Cero and El Corte Inglès…jokes. It’s not a technical landmark, but it’s so popular in Spain that it might as well be. If you’re not familiar, think about Target and Macy’s combined with designer products, a restaurant, and healthcare. I have never seen a bigger building with only one store. If ever presented with the chance, go. American department stores pale in comparison. We went solely for the view of the skyline, but seeing the store was an experience in itself.


Kilometro Cero, the origin of all roads in Spain

Madrid's skyline as seen from El Corte Inglés

Madrid’s skyline as seen from El Corte Inglés

El Escorial & Segovia

The next day we set off for a place I’d never heard of–El Escorial. It in itself is a smaller village, but we went to see its monastery. Huge is an understatement. We toured the inside and while we weren’t allowed to take pictures, the place in itself was pretty memorable if for nothing other than its size. We saw rooms where the King and Queen slept and learned that it was normal for the public to enter and watch them in their daily lives. Weird, right? I think I’d freak out if I woke up to someone staring at me everyday. Later on we saw tombs of all of the kings and queens and ran into some grumpy monks. Apparently they aren’t fans of tourists or being spoken to at all.  This surprised me considering that they’re surrounded by both things fairly often and weren’t said to be silent monks. Odd.



My friend Shannon and I at the monastery

Once we finished at the monastery, we headed over to Segovia. Huge seemed to be a common theme that day because as soon as we arrived we saw the roman aqueducts. (Picture)
As the name implies, they are roman structure created to transport water across the city. After looking at them for a while and taking tons of pictures, we moved on to Segovia’s castle. We learned that it was the basis for Cinderella’s castle in Disney World. Small world, right? (Or in Spanish, el mundo es un pañuelo, which implies the same idea but actually translates to ‘the world is a tissue’. Speaking of Disney, I wonder what the Small World ride would sound like translated. “The world’s a tissue after all, the wooooorld’s a tissue aaafter all……”)

Aqueducts of Segovia

Aqueducts of Segovia

Segovian castle

Segovian castle


Princesses outside of their castle

Princesses outside of their castle


One of the many intricate castle ceilings

One of the many intricate castle ceilings

My knight in shining armor

My knight in shining armor



Princess's bedroom

Princess’s bedroom

152 steps later, we arrived at the top of the castle's tower

152 steps later, we arrived at the top of the castle’s tower


The next day we spent entirely in Madrid. Susana’s husband, Miguel, took us on a walk through a different part of the city.

La Plaza de la Villa, the oldest plaza in Spain

La Plaza de la Villa, the oldest plaza in Spain

El Palacio Real, where the royal family resides

El Palacio Real, where the royal family resides

...this is the post office

…this is the post office

La Puerta

La Puerta

We found ourselves at Buen Retiro Park. There we saw the most Pennsylvania-esque creatures of the trip: turtles, ducks, and very large lake fish. Beyond that was El Palacio de Cristal, which is what it sounds like. While it has some actual structure, it’s mainly composed of glass. Inside was an art exposition, one of the many that have the opportunity to be displayed there. They change about every two weeks, but I can’t imagine one being prettier than the one we saw.






Next on the agenda was La Reina Sofia museum. On the walk there we passed a few outdoor gyms with machines built into the ground and the whole nine yards. Who knew?

Once we got to La Reina, we meandered for a while until we found ourselves in front of Picasso’s Guernica. Unfortunately, this was another place where pictures were prohibited, but maybe that was for the best–pictures couldn’t have done it justice. Sometimes things just hit you straight in the face with no warnings. This was one of them. And sure, I’d read about it before and I knew that it was about a bomb on a certain village during the Spanish Civil War, but it was one of those things where you just don’t get it completely until you see it for yourself. Absolutely incredible. We must’ve stood there staring at it for twenty minutes or more without saying a word before we talked about it, but it was one of those things that you don’t get tired of looking at. Like Niagra Falls, for example. Every time you look you find something new to see even though the idea remains the same.

Following La Reina Sofia we headed to our next museum for the day, Paseo del Prado. This held Las Meninas by Velazquez, a painting I’d never seen before nor heard of but later learned that it was also incredibly famous. One of our professors, Dr. Blue, knows so much about Spanish art that it’s unbelievable. He pointed out that Velazquez puts himself in the painting, something that tends to be very uncommon and yet still executed perfectly by this gent. His use of lighting within the piece calls one’s attention to certain aspects of the painting while leaving some other subtler parts as they were originally, allowing the viewer to find them on his or her own.

We next went on our second stroll through the town where we saw the oldest plaza in Spain, Miguel Cervantes house, and a handful of other impressive places.

Miguel Cervantes's house

Miguel Cervantes’s house

La Plaza de la Villa, the oldest plaza in Spain

La Plaza de la Villa, the oldest plaza in Spain

Following our walk, we hopped onto Madrid’s subway to go eat dinner in at a rooftop cafe. I ate beef ternera, which is essentially raw beef with spices and such. With the sunset in the background, it was the perfect wrap up for our last night in the city.




As glad as I was to collapse onto my bed afterwards and recuperate from hours and hours in museums that day, I knew that I’d learned an insurmountable amount about some of the most important pieces of their respective eras. That’s one thing I’ve learned about Spain–there is no end to the stories of the country’s history and the people who influenced it, both positively and negatively.


On the fourth and final day we headed over to Toledo. The city in itself is unique in comparison to any other, being that it’s made mostly of Spanish brick (I think that’s an appropriate name to call it considering that I have yet to see it elsewhere). The streets were decorated with flowers, flags, and garland for a festival called Corpus Christi that would be happening the next day. While there, we went to see a painting called El Greco and learned about its meaning and the progression of the painting itself (no picture possibilities once again, sadly)  On our way out, one of the students in our group ran into her teacher from a few years past without either of them knowing that the other would be there. Small world, huh?

Decorations for Corpus Christi

Decorations for Corpus Christi


Following El Greco, we went to the oldest synagogue in Spain. It was cool to have a change of pace and see a different sort of building since we’d been primarily visiting churches throughout the trip.

Arches within the synagogue

Arches within the synagogue

Post synagogue, we went to Toledo’s cathedral. This particular church had a type of sculpture that wasn’t present in any other, depicting different biblical images. The sculpture went up to and through the ceiling near a skylight.

Toledo's Cathedral sculpture

Part of Toledo’s Cathedral sculpture

Our trip to Toledo concluded with the walk back to the bus…in doing so we took some escalators down the side of a mountain?? They were outside and acted as a shortcut and a much better alternative to stairs considering its height.

An overlook of Toledo as seen from the escalators

An overlook of Toledo as seen from the escalators

Outdoor escalating

Outdoor escalating

With a great weekend coming to a close, we began the trek back to Ronda and officially met the halfway point in the program. How could it be that only two more weeks of school remained? Where in the world does the time go?

С Днём Независимости!

In other words, Happy Independence Day, America!

Every week of classes, a common theme is practiced throughout. For example, last week the theme was art (to keep up with Russian Art Week), and all 7 of my classes consisted of talking about art-related words and reading about the Russian art culture and festivities. This past week, the theme of the classes was National Holidays. We spent time learning about the different practices of holidays in Russia and compared the different traditions and celebrations.

Today is the 4th of July, and while it is obviously not celebrated in Russia, Dostoevsky Day (or Weekend, actually) is celebrated. Fyoder Dostoevsky was a 19th-century Russian writer who is well-known around the world through his novels Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The first weekend in July was chosen because the opening scene in Crime and Punishment takes place on a hot Petersburg day in early July, and Russians celebrate with many street festivals, living statues and demonstrations outside of the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg.

The program I am here studying with, CIEE, is kind enough to even host a picnic for the American students today to commemorate our national holiday! This will be an exciting way to celebrate while we are abroad in Russia, and I am also pumped to observe some Dostoevsky celebrations (there are a couple of concerts going on, too) as well. Oh, and to make this day EVEN better, the weather is supposed to reach a sunny upper-70s Fahrenheit temperature! (Disclaimer: I know it is Russia, but yes, it does get warm, and yes, they do have beaches.)

Back to my classes this past week, we covered a lot of different material. In my media class on Friday, after we were finished discussing articles published by different Russian journalists,our professor asked us to describe some of the most blatant differences between Russia and America in terms of everyday life. Immediately, I thought about the necessity of different forms of daily transportation and the blatant overdose each day of grains and potatoes that I have observed in my first (almost) month here. There are a lot of similarities, more so than I think many people may realize, but of course, this is a different country with different traditions and a different day-to-day life. Below I have compiled a little list to express some of the more obvious cultural things I am still learning to adapt to:

  • Transportation: I am from a rural area about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I do not think I have ever used a metro. Okay, so maybe I have, but I was very young, and it was never a necessity. When I go to class in the morning at Penn State, my longest walk might take about 15 minutes, but here, getting to my classes is quite a hike. In St. Petersburg, I wake up around 7:45, get ready and eat breakfast and am out the door by 9. I catch a bus by my apartment building and ride to the metro station nearest me (I prefer not to take a bus home, and the walk takes me a half an hour from my closest metro station). Then, I ride four stops on the red line to the metro stop nearest the Smolny campus of Saint Petersburg State University. If I were to walk from here, it would take about 20 minutes, but thankfully, CIEE provides students a shuttle that leaves from the station at 9:40, bringing us to Smolny just in time for our first class at 10 am. I could go on for days about transportation here, but I must admit that it has grown on me, and I enjoy observing people on the metro.
What a place to study all summer!

Smolny Campus: What a place to study at all summer!

  • Classes: We have classes 3 times a day, 4 days a week. Each class lasts an hour and a half, which is something that really seems to take a while during the days Smolny is especially freezing. Also, class participation makes up the majority of the grade (along with the final), rather than tests or quizzes throughout the course.

After climbing to the top of the Smolny Cathedral located on my campus, I got to see the bird’s-eye view of the beautiful city.

  • Food: I have jokingly said to family and friends that the diet here might persuade someone to want to never eat potatoes again, but it’s not that bad. Breakfast typically consists of kasha (oatmeal), eggs, buckwheat, or sausage and potatoes with an open-faced sandwich, and dinner typically contains cucumbers, tomatoes, soup, pasta, potatoes, bread… fruit is not really a big thing here. I am fortunate to be studying in Russia during the summer when the largest selection of freshly-grown fruits and vegetables is available to me, but I must say, the four main food groups here are grains, meat, tea and dairy. The little poppyseed cakes and blini (crepe-like pancakes) treats that do come hand-in-hand with tea time are incredible, I must admit.

    Typical Russian Dinner: Potatoes, cabbage, chicken, cheese, raw fish, bread, apples (oh, and of course, black tea)

Location: St. Petersburg, Russia

From Sandy Toes to City Streets

Though I don’t live in the Outer Banks, after traveling there every summer for the past twenty years I do feel like a local. Surrounded by so much family, a beautiful beach, and town, I found it harder to leave than I anticipated. No, this is technically not my home, however that didn’t make it any easier, instead it made it harder to cut my family vacation short for my London study abroad trip. Yet, who am I to complain? A week with my toes in the sand and then straight off to the London streets to learn, explore, and discover is certainly nothing to complain about.

So, before I have to brush the sand from my feet and lace up my tourist sneakers to travel around London, I decided I wanted to write down a few thoughts on some expectations for London that excite me and also what I have no clue about.

On the top of my list for my cluelessness column are my classes and the food. Every time I ask someone what cultural food London has the answer is always fish and chips. Yes, I assume London does have fish and chips, however I won’t be naive enough to think that London ONLY has one cultural delicacy I’ll experience. I’m not a picky eater by any means, yet I can’t help but be a little bit nervous about whether I’ll like the food or not (aside: this partially stems from the time I first spent two weeks in Germany and subsequently couldn’t eat pork for months afterwards).

My other, the classes, gives me feelings of nervousness and excitement mixed. With a tentative class excursion already in hand, I know that our day-to-day adventures will be well planned, unforgettable, and wonderful. Personally, having a partially structured schedule is a relief so that I can get myself more organized with what I want to do in my free time (hello Harry Potter tours and the London Theatre). On the other hand, the nervousness comes from those well-known first-day-of-school nerves, albeit now escalated in a foreign country. For example the questions: will I like my teachers, how can I fit in papers, homework, and readings, what if I completely flunk my classes, all continually spiral around in my head among the other never-ending what-ifs that follow.

Another smaller yet still significant “how do I prepare for that” I expect to be a bit challenging for me is the culture of London. Not many people, myself included, realize that London does have a vastly different culture than the United States. Although I cannot expand (yet) on just how/why/in what ways London is majorly culturally different from the U.S., I’m going in with an open mind and heart to face, enjoy and experience everything I possibly can while abroad.


Next, I will move on to my expected experiences column. Top of the list for me are the theater shows. As a dear lover of all things Broadway, I cannot wait to see all sorts of shows in London from Shakespeare to Wicked.

Similar to this is the history of literature that I’ll be exploring in my classes. As an English education major, I’ve always wanted to learn about literature beyond reading a simple book or play, and I also plan to teach in a similar manner. By visiting London, I get the amazing opportunity to learn literature first hand and then later incorporate what I’ve learned from London in my classes in the future (this trip crosses this item off of my bucket list). This goes hand in hand with field trips, which I’m by far the most excited for while in London. Our professors have so far set up a TON of awesome, already planned and varied types of day trips to take around London and neighboring areas that also coincide with what we’re learning in class. Again, as an education major, I love seeing how other teachers teach beyond a textbook. The Harry Potter tours/sightseeing also fall under this category. My preteen self has waited long enough to experience the magic of Hogwarts, so look out for later posts focused around this!


Lastly, my fellow travelers. One of the best parts about this trip (so far) is that I’ve been able to communicate with the other students in my class. Though this could sound simple and silly, what a relief it was for me to find out that most of the other kids on the trip love Ed Sheeran (who will be in London when we are) and Harry Potter, and seem like genuinely great people to spend a month abroad with. Since I’ve been abroad a few times before, I know the unexplainable bond you create with a group of people when traveling abroad. Usually traveling abroad allows you/forces you to step out of some type of comfort zone (i.e. trying new foods, being in an unfamiliar place with an unfamiliar culture, to name just a few). Regardless of how big or small that comfort zone you leave is, you’ll always remember the people by your side, experiencing similar thoughts, feelings, and sights that you are.

To learn more about my experiences and a broader list of unexpected experiences that later occur, continue to follow my blog as I document my study abroad experience! Thanks for reading, and cheers, love!

Location: Outer Banks, North Carolina

The Power of Passion


A business woman who I met through an event at IES, also my roommates boss, said something at a networking event last Friday afternoon that resonated with me so much that I decided to write a blog about it.

Back tracking…

My roommate Jessie is in the Journalism school at the University of North Carolina back in the US, so her internship placement is with a journalist, Filomina, who is an author of a recently published book. Jessie’s job is to translate the book into English.

26/6/2015: Networking Event at IES

A networking event was set up for the interns and employers of the IES summer program to share what they have been working on in their internship placements. Jessie explained to the group the book she is translating, and then Filomina explained to us her motivation behind writing it.

The book is a collection of stories about women who have left their careers (typically high paying, well-respected jobs) to pursue their dream jobs. Jessie explained her favorite story so far about a woman who opened a bakery to make gluten free food for people suffering from Celiacs disease. She loved baking and knew that there were limited options of food for people suffering from Celiacs here in Italy.

Listening to Filomina talk about these women was inspiring because she explained to our group that “it is our time” (our is referring to women). During her spiel is when she said “the power of passion can change your reality”, AKA my new mantra. The more I thought about this, I connected it to my life. She was right. With passion, you can create your own version of fortune, but that drive is valuable. I believe in doing things that scare you, testing your limits, taking a leap of faith, not only in your career but in all aspects of your life.

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” – Steve Jobs


Other employers at the networking event expressed gratification towards their interns. They explained how cultural exchange is vital. Although it takes time to adjust, it is an asset for both the student interns, and the companies of our employers. They shared about how much we have to offer being responsible students and employees- which is true. Not to toot our own horn, but this made me think about all of the hard work I (and all other study abroad students) put in to getting to our abroad destinations. Jet lag and culture shock are not the necessarily the hardest parts about studying abroad- the application process through your home school and your abroad program is tedious and time consuming. Each of us worked hard to get here, and now are focusing time and energy on learning in this new work environment. It is something to be proud of, and I am grateful for the internship employers here, as well as my study abroad experience, that made me realize this.


My internship is going really well. On the 30th of June I recorded the minutes of the South European Network for Health Inequalities meeting, and I gave doctors and professors from France, Greece, Slovenia, England, Portugal, and Morocco a tour of Saint Marias church in Rome. Each person I met that day offered me a lot of insight and advice, and taught me so much about their nations. They told me about things that you barely see on the news in America, also things that made me grateful to call America home. In my last post I said something along the lines of  “I don’t want to act too American and embarrass myself”, now I see that being an American is nothing to be embarrassed of.


Left to Right: Dr. Marmot, researcher, professor, and director of UCL Institute of Health Equity in London; Dr. Mertens of the World Health Organization; Dr. Yfantopoulos, professor at University of Athen

Also, they recognized Penn State after they asked where I studied, which gave me even more of a reason to be Penn State Proud.

I have been helping with research on candida in the lab here as well. We make slides of the epithelial cells, both infected and non infected with candida, treat them with antibodies and observe the effects under a microscope. This microscope shows zeta space (3D pictures of the cell) which keeps me preoccupied for hours. The microbiologist, Dr. Calcaterra, has taught me so much since I wrote last, which I am so grateful for. For my science people: You can check out her published research here if you are interested http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=calcaterra+R

Until next time,

Michelle xo

Location: Rome, Italy

Lesson Five: Be Patient

Location: Rabat, Morocco

Normally, traveling requires a lot of patience for all the times waiting; in car rides, waiting for trains, and so on. But the type of patience I learned this week has nothing to do with traveling, it’s about being patient with yourself.

As I mentioned in my last post, Ramadan started last week. However, since we were in the desert and traveling around the first few days, we didn’t partake in it very much until this week. However, we did have a bit of trouble on the very first day on the train, because even though we’re not by any means required to fast, eating or drinking in public is obviously very rude. We’d gone straight from school to the train station to catch our train to Fes (which ended up being moved back by and hour and a half- Ramadan means normally set schedules are thrown out the window), so we hadn’t eaten since lunch, but couldn’t eat or snack because we were in public. Some of us furtively snuck a few pretzels to tide them other, but it was interesting because even though we were not fasting, we were affected just as much as everyone else. That’s turned out to be the norm so far.

Ramadan is the holy month according to Islamic calendar, celebrating the month when Muhammad first received his revelations from the Angel Gabriel. It is a month for reflection, donations to the poor, pilgrimage to Mecca, and daily fasting. Fasting is one of the five pillars of Islam, and it requires all able-bodied Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, smoking, and having sexual relations from sunrise to sunset for the entire month. Travelers, pregnant or menstruating women, children, the elderly, and the sick are exempt. Fasting is supposed to leave time for you to reflect, pray, and celebrate the holy month. In the same way that Catholics give up something for lent, it is also a lesson in humility and devotedness to God.

Life in Morocco is entirely different during Ramadan. Most families wake up before sunrise to eat breakfast, then go back to sleep for a little while. Some have to work, but only for limited hours, then they can come home and sleep for the afternoon until evening. Iftar, the meal that breaks the fast, happens promptly at sundown. Literally the moment the call to prayer sounds, everything stops for Iftar. Coming back from our desert trip, our train got in so that we were walking home during Iftar. No cars in the streets, no one walking around, and the addition of string lights wrapped around the palm trees made it even stranger. At the cafes we passed people were eating with multiple dishes and drinks in front of them, but there was no one doing anything else. 

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Iftar can be taken outside the home, but it is often a meal that one celebrates at home with your family. You break the fast with a glass of milk and a few dates, then the men quickly go to the mosque to pray (there are mosques around every corner so it’s not a big deal), then come back and join the rest of the family. I’m still learning the names of all the foods, but there’s always some sort of soup, sometimes a vegetable puree with saffron, which is delicious, and sometimes one called hariria, which comes from the Berbers and has the same consistency as cream of wheat, but is bland with no taste. It’s nourishing I guess.

I’m still trying to work out our the Moroccan concept of eating. Even though I walk through a market street every morning with loads of fruits and vegetables for sale, in my host family at least we hardly eat any vegetables, and the only fruit we have is melon and watermelon. I’m not sure whether it’s because vegetables are not liked, or because meat is such a status symbol (because it’s expensive) that if you can afford meat, why bother to buy vegetables? They don’t really seem to take food groups into consideration. The two main food groups seem to be bread and sugar. Other than that the rest is optional. Diabetes is a bit of an epidemic here because of the amount of sugar, which comes in rectangular blocks, loaded into things. Even their concept of weight is different. Apparently another girl on my program was told that the probable reason that she isn’t married yet is because she doesn’t eat enough and is too thin. When I went to the pharmacy with our activities director, she weighed herself and was dismayed to find that she’d lost weight! I had a very hard time explaining to her that it is the opposite perception back home. I suppose that having enough to eat and thus being a reasonable weight is a symbol here, but I haven’t asked anyone to know for sure.

But back to Iftar; there’s always dates and almond paste and this pastry that looks like a sticky pretzel caused shebeka. There’s various types of breads, my favourite is one that is a bit like a hispanic arepa- slightly fried, flat, but thick enough to be chewy. Another one is like a British crumpet, but is thinner and is eaten with honey spread on it. There’s no traditional main course for Iftar, though tajine or various other meat-and-potatoes combinations is common. There was quite a lot of preparation the week that Ramadan started, the house was cleaned, and they stocked up on food. I came home one day to find my host grandmother sitting in the middle of the floor de-necking a dozen or so chickens. You know, casually. Despite this, all the usual food is still available in the streets of the medina. What amazes me is that starting from late afternoon all vendors are out selling this food, even though they can’t eat until sundown. I have a new appreciation for the patience and piety of Muslims; it takes a lot of willpower and determination to put the demands of your stomach out of your mind and fast, especially for a month.

We were told to expect some degree of distressed “hangry” behavior during Ramadan, especially in the afternoon as the day drags on and they haven’t been able to eat anything. The most apparent manifestation of this is the traffic and the accompanying road rage. They use car horns very liberally to express even the slightest discontent. We sit in class and listen to the solid stream of car horns as people sit in traffic trying to get home after their shortened workday. I sudder to think what Moroccans would do without car horns. I’ve also witnessed one Ramadan-induced fight so far. I was out on the main street in the medina buying a bottle of water from a little shop because my stomach was upset so I didn’t want to give it more to deal with by drinking the mineral-heavy tap water (which I’d weaned myself on to within the first week). Then a young man comes running down the street and turns the corner, angrily swooping over to each side shop to knock their boxes of crisps and such down onto the ground, with a dozen or so other blokes running behind him in pursuit. It was very bizarre but everyone around just helped pick up the upset boxes and continued on with life. Happy Ramadan.

I knew coming to Morocco that I was going to try to fast to some degree. While I haven’t fasted all the way like they do, so far what I’ve done is instead just eat much much less. So I’ll have some bread and tea for breakfast, a small snack for lunch, then Iftar around 7:45. While I am hungry during the day, it’s not difficult. However, unlike most of the city, our schedule does not change, so I’m a little wary of trying to sit through class from 9 until 4 with no food, so I think I’ll stick with my method for now and try complete fasting for one or two days here and there. We’ll see.

I did experience some trouble this week. It was much hotter and more humid than last week, and although I was eating the same amount as part of my demi-fasting, I hadn’t been drinking enough. It’s difficult, because as it is obviously rude to drink in front of people who are fasting, I don’t get a lot of chances to furtively drink enough water. Combined with the sweating from the heat, I was overheated and dehydrated and weak and hungry by the time Iftar was served for a few days before I realised what was wrong. It kept me exhausted and feeling slightly nauseated so that I didn’t want to eat anything and I fell asleep very early doing homework for a few nights in a row before I sorted myself out. My demi-fasting, although it is not nearly as vigorous as what everyone around me is doing, has taught me to be patient. I enjoy mental games, and this is just another one of those.You just have to be patient and accept that time will pass as it will and wait for sundown.

In a similar way, I experienced a lot of frustration with myself the first few weeks here in being unable to communicate very well. I wasn’t able to understand other or say what I wanted to say the first time, and I gave up very easily. If my host mother tried to explain something to me and I just didn’t quite understand her the first or second time, I would just smile and nod and give up. I don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to my limitations. This is true at home as well for things I know I don’t understand; anything technical, physics, mechanical processes, and so on. But communicating is something I pride myself on being very good at….in English. Here I’ve really been challenged because something I’m so good at at home is now a daily struggle. In class I’d understand maybe 65% of the lecture, on a good day. Listening to a language you’re still learning is a active task, you can’t passively listen and think of other things like I do in class at home. It took 100% of my concentration, and that was difficult. Similarly, I’d be afraid to barter for things in the streets for fear of not being able to communicate what I wanted to say. But I was (forced to be) patient and now, after being here 5 weeks, I understand almost everything said in class, the main ideas of our readings, and can carry conversations with my host family or shopkeepers with only minor Darija-French difficulties. My French is most likely very grammatically incorrect, and I usually have to explain something a few different ways and have things repeated or said slowly to be, but it works. Many people who’ve listened to me complain about the language barrier and my fears about French are probably thinking “I told you so” but that’s okay. I got there in my own time, and now I’ve learned to just be patient and things will usually get better, whether it be lingual comprehension or the prospect of iftar.


A picture taken at one of our cooking classes- learning to make tajine.

Location: Rue Tajine, Medina, Rabat, Morocco

Europe’s Top 8 Lessons

Has it really already been six weeks? Why is everything around me in English rather than German or some other language that I don’t understand? These are the questions I find myself pondering as I sit at home in my own bed. As I reflect on my journey, I am struck with eight life lessons:

  • Water isn’t worth it. Wait, what’s this? Why is there a price beside “water” in the menu? And why is the water bubbly? It was always a disappointment to arrive at a restaurant only to find that in addition to paying for the meal, you also had to pay for your water. It got to the point that it wasn’t even worth it to pay for water anymore (I would just refill water bottles in a sink). Instead of getting water with a meal, it just made sense to buy a beer since  we all knew we would have to pay for it regardless.


    Not a glass of water to be found

  • The amount of people per car is just a suggestion. Want to rent a car for eight people in Europe? Good luck. One weekend myself along with seven of my friends wanted to travel from Pforzheim, Germany to Köln, Germany and then on to Brussels, Belgium. After doing some research, we found out that the largest car we could rent was for seven people. Instead of taking multiple trains, we chose to rent the car and cram everyone (as well as our bags) in. While it wasn’t the most comfortable ride, we disproved the seven person limit. But, of course, don’t try this at home, kids…


    Stretching our legs in front of the Kölner Dom

  • Sleep anywhere you can. After traveling, going to school, and exploring nonstop, I have determined that anywhere is a good place to sleep. A few simple examples include, but are not limited to: buses, trains, planes, class (whoops), beds (sometimes the beds aren’t always yours), clothing stores, bars, etc. Of course, it always helps to avoid falling asleep in front of “friends” who take embarrassing pictures of you and then post those pictures on Facebook… If the picture wasn’t so embarrassing, I would post it.
  • Comfort is more important than fashion. Think those heels look nice? Planning on wearing a dress for a five hour train ride? Think again. Over my six week stay in Europe, I came to realize that looking good didn’t matter nearly as much as being comfortable. Let’s face it, no one wants to hang out with someone who is constantly complaining about how much her feet hurt or how her dress keeps blowing up in the wind. There is a time and a place to dress up, but touring around Europe isn’t always one of them. Save it for the clubs at night!


    Case and point: this dress turned my whole body blue & climbing through the vineyard was extremely difficult

  • Air conditioning isn’t standard. “Wow, it feels so nice and cool in here.” I don’t think I ever uttered this phrase once while studying abroad. The closest I ever came was, “What a nice breeze from the windows!” Thank goodness I was primarily in Germany (it was cool enough there that I wore jeans most days) as opposed to somewhere hotter. During my trips to Barcelona and Ibiza, I honestly wondered if it’s possible to melt.
  • Language doesn’t matter if you have money. I like to think that I know a little bit of German, but I’m nowhere near fluent. Whenever I would go to a clothing store, a restaurant, etc. I would try to start off speaking German; however, I wasn’t always able to convey what I wanted. Although, I soon discovered that the second I pulled out a 20 Euro bill (or whatever it costed) the retailer or waiter suddenly understood exactly what I meant when they previously had been confused. I guess money is a universal language.
  • Elevators aren’t a requirement. Stairs. Endless stairs. I have never climbed so many stairs in my life. I have never carried so many heavy bags up endless flights of stars in my life. Would it kill all of Europe to make elevators easily accessible? Maybe that’s why so many of them are so skinny.
  • Always carry some change around. Ever have to pay for a bathroom in America? Not a chance. But if you want to use a public restroom in Europe, you better have at least 50 cents on you. Although annoying at first (when I wasn’t prepared), I tended to notice that most of the bathrooms that charged for use were cleaner than free restrooms. As it turns out, the money really does go to a good place: making your experience so much nicer.

Even though I’ll miss waking up every morning in Germany, I know I’ll always remember these lessons and the friends I learned them with. It’s been real, Pforzheim!


The most bittersweet farewell party ever


Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sulla costa


The past week has been a memorable one. Pictures alone can’t do it justice, so here is an elaboration about my weekend spent traveling down the coast of Italy and the beginning of my work week.

First stop: Tenuta Vannulo

Tenuta Vannulo is an organic buffalo farm that sells fresh mozzarella, ricotta cheese, yogurt, gelato, and coffee. A group of us toured the buffalo farm, home to over 300 buffalo. They called it a spa because of the way they treat their buffalo, to reduce stress they play Mozart for two hours every morning and have spinning wheels that the buffalo can rub up against for a massage. Vaccines and antibiotics are not used on the buffalo, so the milk is all naturale. Using buffalo milk rather than cow milk makes their produce more creamy. I was hesitant at first, but lunch they made for us on the tour was one of, if not the best meal I have had in Italy yet. For sure the freshest meal I have ever eaten.

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Next stop: Paestum

An ancient city founded by the Dorics. There we saw the Temple of Hera which dates back to 600 B.C. These ruins used to be under water in a quarry that was drained, and thats when they found this old city. In the museum we saw painted tombs from the burial monument: Tomba del tuffatore (Tomb of the Diver). The diver is a representation of live and death- Life is a short dive, death is a dive into the wildly unknown.

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Later that night:

Our group stayed at Hotel Bristol on the rocks on the Amalfi Coast. You can see below our view of the ocean from the balcony.


Sunday morning:

We took a boat tour of the Amalfi Coast which was just as incredible as it sounds. When we got off the boat, we walked around the town for a while, shopping and sight seeing at the Cathedral. Then we headed to the beach. My Sunday consisted of swimming in crystal clear, warm water with the most amazing view behind my friends and I. My only complaint is that I wish I could stay there for weeks, not just one weekend.


Before heading home:

We took a bus up to Ravello villa that looks over the Amalfi coast. The gardens offered a breathtaking view, where we found the stage for Ravello festival. Obviously, we got on it and starting singing Lizzie Mcquires “this is what dreaammmsss are made of”IMG_8201IMG_8104IMG_8215IMG_8130

Back to reality on Monday:

Leaving work, I got home to my apartment, made dinner, and planned a wine night with my friends. We ended up on the steps of the Palazzaccio, drinking wine, playing music, and talking for hours. Wine night with a view, what could be better?

Tuesday night festivities included:

Pink Floyd Ballet Company performed at an outside arena in the Terme di Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla). Both the ballet company and the view were amazing. I loved every second, even though it was weird to be watching them dance from the audience and not be the one on stage.


Con amore, 

Michelle xo 

In One Place and Thinking of Another

Tomorrow is my final exam in my university class, and I have been trying to study hard. But don’t worry, writing this blog is just a short break from studying for my exam. It will be an oral cumulative final exam in Spanish, of course. I have no hints as to what the questions will be or how it is structured. So I am pretty nervous for it, even though my professors are very patient and kind. Oh, and the exam also worth my entire grade for the course.

Despite my anxiety for the exam, I am finding it very hard to concentrate on studying. For one, many people left over the weekend or on Monday, so I spent a lot of time with them enjoying the last sights and tastes of Buenos Aires. Before we said our goodbyes, we went to some of our favorite cafes across the city to chat and enjoy good coffee. Yesterday, I went to a Peruvian restaurant with my friends because I surely will not find that in my suburban town or in State College.

I hadn’t really realized that I was leaving Buenos Aires so soon until I started saying goodbyes to friends leaving BA. We gave each other besos on the cheek and big hugs and agreed to see each other back in the States. Gratefully, many of the friends I have made here live in Northeast, so it will be easy to visit them and stay in touch. I have even made friends who go to Penn State, so I’m especially excited to hang out with them on campus next year! But when saying goodbye/ see you later to them, I think gee, I’m going to have to say goodbye to more friends, my lovely homestay family, my buddies at the tea house, and this city in a few days!


Besides spending time with my friends, I am trying to check off my own bucket list in Buenos Aires. I went to another cafe/ bookstore that I’ve been wanting to go to and studied there for a while in Palermo. I plan on going to the tea house a lot on my last days here. I am also running around buying the last few gifts I have on my list for friends and stopping at bookstores to pick up more books in Spanish to take back with me to the US.

So, it has definitely been difficult to study.

Today, I have been studying a lot. But  last night at dinner, my host parents asked me a few questions about Argentine history to help me practice for my exam and that made me feel a lot better and more confident. No matter what grade I receive on this exam, I will be really proud of myself for taking this course. I never could have had this experience at Penn State. The course really improved my Spanish comprehension, and I learned modern Argentine history with Argentine students and learned more about their own political perspectives.

Studying abroad has been an unforgettably unique experience. I have learned so much academically and culturally. I have experienced economic instability first hand. I have learned to manage the public transportation of a developing country. I have come to love Argentines: their ability to adapt, their pride, and their interminable hope for a better future.
On my last day of class at the local university, my teacher brought in a t-shirt she made to show to the class.

Last lesson

As always, she passionately tried to inspire pride of country. The shirt has the Argentine flag and says “Yo amo Argentina”, “I love Argentina”. She warned the class that this shirt was not for pajamas, but was to be worn proudly out to the previa (pre-game) or the boliche (club). Although the class laughed at her jokes, my professor truly does love her country, dedicates herself to teaching Argentine history with the hope of inspiring patriotism and political activism in her students.

She asked us if the foreigners if we loved Argentina, and we all responded yes. My professor asked what we thought of peronism and how we would describe it to Americans. We replied that we would explain peronism is quite complicated. The class laughed.

So with all that I have learned in Argentina, I hope to carry these lessons home with me. I hope to be as warm and welcoming as Argentines: warmly greeting colleagues, friends, and family with kisses and hugs; to read more and watch more films in Spanish; to have the insight to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee without thinking about everything else I need to accomplish; to be more flexible in my own country when things go wrong or plans change; and to share what I learned in Latin America with friends and family.

Location: Carlos Pellegrini 1069 Buenos Aires, Argentina