My Ultimate Travel Inspiration: Abuela

A note from the author: This is a tribute to my abuela who recently passed away on Friday the 13th, September, 2019. This article was made possible thanks to my family who shared their oral history, where I was able to match up parts of her story with photos and documents. She often would explain, “yo crucé montañas, rios, y oceanos para poder pasar tiempo contigo” to the grandkids in order to help us understand what kind of effort, distance, and sacrifice was invested in order for her to spend time with us. Clarita was a soul full of colors, love and forgiveness. She was magic with her unconditional love, like a poesía de alegría. She could lite up any room she walked into, filling a house with her energy resembling vibrant colors. To better understand why Clarita was the way she was, our greatest inspiration to keep going despite life’s obstacles, the following is her story.

Clara Beatriz Rey was born on July 29th, 1934 in Bogotá, Colombia, although the date is debatable. This stereotypical vivacious Leo personality argued that her real birth date is unknown since she has no birth certificate to prove it. Her family’s life took a turn when she was 4-years-old because her dad Guillermo Rey Chacón passed away due to Tuberculosis, leaving behind Clarita, her older sister of 7 years-old Maria Helena “Nena”, and their Mami Maria Helena Vazquez.

They moved in with her mom’s 14 siblings, 5 tios and 9 tias who helped raise the young girls. Her mom was the oldest of the 14, therefore she was known as el gran poder, or the mighty power, also due to her affability and kindness leading to a certain don, or gift, she had liaising with people. Clarita would later acquire this same don and impressive ability of connecting with people in a way that even a stranger on the street would love talking to her.  Furthermore, Maria Helena had a distinct ability to play the piano that her parents ordered from Germany.

Clarita finished up to 7th grade (2do de bachillerato), then went to work at a Kodak 100_4407shop that some of her aunts worked at, as well as a laboratory where she packaged medicines. Cue meeting her future husband Carlos Jaime Chavarriaga (pronounced Hi-meh) on a bus towards downtown, both of them on their way to work in 1954 when Clara was 19-years-old. Jaime worked at the Manhattan store, a clothing line for men. By the end of 1954, Jaime and Clara wed at the Iglesia Santa Teresita, and then by 1955 their first daughter Martha was born.

 

First Trip Abroad, 4 Kids, and Career

Clarita y Martha - Culver City, California

Clarita & Martha in Culver City, California

By the end of 1955, a tia of Jaime offered the family of three their first trip to the United States. They took a short stop in Cuba for a couple of days, and they stayed in the USA for about 5 months. Since they stayed in Culver City, California outside of LA, Jaime tried out for various roles as an extra for several movies searching for “Hispanic” actors. He wasn’t able to find a job, so they returned back to Colombia. However, this trip must have made on impact on her first born (and possibly the second born too since she could have been conceived in the USA), which later on it will make sense why.

Shortly after, the brood grew to a total of 4 kids with Maria Clara (1956), Carlos Jaime (1958), and Claudia Rosa “Rosita” (1960). In order to not confuse Carlos Jaime Jr with his dad, we will refer to Jaime Sr as “Don Jaime.” Most family trips consisted of long weekend “Puente” holiday trips to warmer climate and lower altitude pueblos outside of cold mountainous Bogotá a couple of times a year. Girardot, Melgar, and Utica were the most frequented spots. Don Jaime’s brother, Guillermo, was a pilot, therefore the couple or the whole family sometimes got to travel thanks to his benefit. By airplane in Colombia, they visited coastal locations like Barranquilla and Tumaco both on the Caribbean and the Pacific coast respectively. 

 

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Clara on her way to Tumaco, Colombia on the pacific coast in 1971. Her brother-in-law Guillermo was a pilot, so he let her take a quick photo opp.

Family Trips in Colombia:

Entrepreneurship ran through Clarita’s veins, as did her nurturing and healing essence. In 1962-66 she started a fashion design business out of their own house where she had a couple of seamstresses on her team. In 1964-69 she created a cake and dessert business overlapping with the other business. Fast forward a bit of time in 1983, she supported Carlos Jaime’s travel agency business which later turned into a catering and events business, Banquetes Pablo VI, which still continues to this day 36 years later. However, her love for working in the healthcare industry prevailed.

Clarita found an internship working as an instrument nurse at the Hospital San José in 1968. To the dismay of her husband Jaime, who like many men at the time felt she should stay at home to child rear and tend to housework, she went against his wishes as she discovered her passion for working in healthcare and continued with it. At the time, Don Jaime had been working at Abbott as a pharmaceutical drug salesman who visited different Doctor’s offices, a job he held until retirement when he created his own related company Disfarma LTDA. Throughout the years, Clara worked seasonally or part-time at several different hospitals: Clinica Palermo, Clinica de Marly, Hospital Militar, and Clinica del Country. She specialized in supporting heart surgeries from about 1968 until about 1988 usually on part-time or short-term based assignments. She took two separate breaks between those 20 years, once in 1977 and once in 1981.

Clara was always savvy to find or create opportunities anywhere. She landed a job as a live-in nanny for two Cuban girls in the Miami, Florida area (Coral Gables) in 1977. She was there for about 5 months, where she would send her earnings as remittances back home to the family. At the time, the eldest daughter Martha was 22, therefore she helped run the household in Colombia. She later had to go home for unexpected reasons the family does not like to talk about, however the experience served as preparation for exciting opportunities to come in the USA and abroad.

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Clarita’s Beauty Battle Scar

She took almost a year-long break in 1981 after she severely broke her right arm in a freak mini elevator accident at the hospital, when a small container (aka dumbwaiter or lift), that transported medical supplies and other materials between floors in the building, fell on her arm and broke skin and bone. Around the same time, Don Jaime and Clara separated since they spent most of their time fighting. It was a very tough year for Clara due to her arm, her failed marriage, and her eldest daughter had left to live in the USA for good. Once her arm was fully mobile again thanks to healing and physical therapy, she persisted with her seasonal work at the hospital. This is only one of the many examples of Clarita’s strength and resilience. It wasn’t until the birth of her first grandchild in 1988 that she decided to drop everything and leave Colombia for a while.

A New Chapter – Grand-parenting All Around The World

At the wedding from left to right: Clara, Richard, Martha, and Don Jaime.

Her eldest daughter Martha met a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer, Richard Tracy, in 1978. They wed by 1980, and moved to the U.S. by 1981 after Richard completed his volunteer service. By 1988, they were living in Richard’s hometown Toledo, Ohio when Alexandra was born. Clarita decided by the time that Ale was 3 months that she was ready to be a full-time grandmother in the USA to help while both parents worked full time. A year later, and still the only birth of her grand kids she ever witnessed, Michele was born in 1989. Just two months after that, her 3rd granddaughter Diana Carolina or “Caro” was born in Bogotá to Carlos Jaime and his wife Diana Patricia. Because of this, Clara spent most of her time traveling between Colombia and the USA for the rest of her grand kids’ youth until the U.S. grand kids turned 18. For 19 years, her visits to the USA would usually span about 3-6 months each, about once a year, all depending on her Visa and who was able to cover her flights.

 

The most exciting birth of a grandchild occurred in the outskirts of Milano, Italy. Clara’s second daughter Maria Clara received a scholarship to study Opera in Italy, and she was there with her partner Carlos Yañez who was also studying his PhD from 1987 to 1994 for 11 years. In 1992, Clarita’s only grandson Andrés was born, providing her another way to explore outside of Colombia and help rear her 4th and last grandchild for a full year. In addition, she landed a job as a nanny for twin Italian girls. With her youngest daughter Rosita, who at the time worked for the Colombian airline Avianca, she was able to travel very easily due to perks and benefits from the job that were extended towards family. The two traveled throughout Europe together while they spent most of the time in Milano. They traveled to London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, and all around Italy. Maria Clara and her family lived in Italy until 1996, when they moved back to Colombia.

 

Rosita and Clarita always traveled together when Rosita worked for Avianca

Again thanks to Rosita and Avianca, Clarita got to travel all over Latin America for the rest of the 90’s and early 2000s. They traveled to Buenos Aires, Santiago de Chile, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas, and Quito. Maria Clara and Rosita spent a lot of time going to visit the USA to accompany Andrés and Caro throughout their youth, but not as much as Clara traveled there with the them. Thanks to Clara’s dedication and guardianship, as well as Rosita, Maria Clara, Martha, and Jaime’s funding and hard work, the four cousins grew up like siblings and all became fully bilingual Spanish-English.

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The 4 primos/siblings: Alexandra, Caro, Michele, and little Andres all together for the first time ever at the Bogota Airport.

Clarita en Santiago de Chile

Clarita and Rosita visiting Maria Clara and Carlos when they lived in Santiago, Chile

In 1991-1997, Martha’s family was living in Texas for 7 years, therefore Clarita had visited enough times to establish relationships in San Antonio, TX. She was able to acquire jobs with her Visa at the time working as a maid at a hotel, as well as babysat from time to time. When Martha’s family left for Mexico in 1997, she decided she was going to try to acquire U.S. citizenship. She continued work at the hotel, found a job at McDonalds, and helped care for disabled people. Whenever she had some extra time, she traveled to Mexico and was able to see some of the states of Coahuila and Nuevo Leon with Martha’s family. Perhaps due to viewing the USA as a ‘superior country’, Clara worked hard to acquire U.S. citizenship. She studied for years for the citizenship test to prepare for once she qualified to actually take the test, especially this visibly worn list of 100 questions in English. Although Clarita had the help of Martha and family to bid for citizenship, benefited from white privilege, and she worked very hard at several jobs, sadly her dream did not come true. It could have been the political and cultural nature of Texas, it could have been her broken English, but unfortunately U.S. citizenship was not granted to her after her test in 1999.

 

 

An Adventurous Life

Clarita Passport Photos

Clarita’s Passport photos through the years

Nonetheless, Clarita lived the last 20 years of her life traveling everywhere with her family. It was always her family connections who made it possible for her to travel so much, and on occasion she was able to save her own hard earned money from different jobs in order to be able to travel. Martha’s family moved to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan in 1999, Maria Clara and her family moved to Chile for a year in the early 2000s, and then her sister Nena’s family moved to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 2006, so there was still a lot of traveling. By 2012, all of the female grand-kids graduated from college, and so the family started traveling more together to new places. Alexandra moved to California, where it was the first time Carlos Jaime and Diana Patricia traveled to the USA in 2014 with the rest of the family. After that, different family members traveled with Clarita everywhere including an epically captured trip to Cuba.

Cartagena, Colombia:

Las Vegas, Nevada and the Grand Canyon:

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Clarita was very modern for an abuela, savvy with her cellphone, especially Whatsapp. Here is a picture she sent Alexandra about her piece of luggage she kept just because of the memorable trips Alexandra took with it.

Clarita was a resilient, independent, adventurous, and a vivacious soul. Her love for exploring new places almost matched her greater love for her family. For about 3 years, she begged Diana Carolina for a trip to Aruba. That trip did not occur because her 3 granddaughters thought they had way more time to plan and save up for the trip. Clara passed away unexpectedly in September of 2019 due to catching bacterial meningitis which sparked sudden rapidly deteriorating health. Thankfully, she did not suffer as she was in a coma for 11 days straight, 3 of which she was half-awake to what the family deems a miracle chance for her to say her goodbyes before she passed. The whole family was convinced she would live past 100+ years just based on her positive, magnetic, and vivacious attitude. Nevertheless, the family holds Clarita’s spirit in their hearts, and are currently grappling with how to move forward with this new void in their lives.

 

Stay tuned for our trip to Aruba which will pay tribute to Clara Chavarriaga Rey! Who knows when it will be planned, but it will happen!

Montañas, Rios y Oceanos

Possible tattoo inspiration found by Michele. Clarita, a Leo with the Sun as it’s ‘planet’ (star), would often say “yo cruce montañas, rios y oceanos para pasar tiempo contigo.”

Nerdy Thirty

A Celebration of the “Girls Trip”

Adeola and I have been friends for nearly 10 years now. We met through Teach For America. “We were randomly paired as roommates for Induction!” is one of our favorite facts to hurl at people when they ask us how we met. In our first meeting, I was already in our dorm room, unpacking every single item of clothing I owned (we were only going to stay in that dorm for a week, but I hate keeping my clothes in suitcases so…) when she walked in, glanced around the room, and immediately stated, “I need to lie down.” From that moment on, I knew we would be friends. 

As our 30th birthdays’ approached, we listed off a few places we might enjoy visiting– Islands in the Caribbean, cruises from Florida… when suddenly, London came up in conversation. I’m not sure who mentioned it first, but immediately, we joked about visiting the Harry Potter sets, taking the Hogwarts Express, and crossing platform 9 ¾. I had never been to London, and she had only really been to visit family. If we really thought about it, we met through travel, so it seemed only fitting that we would celebrate our 30th birthdays together, traveling across the Atlantic, to a little group of islands known as the United Kingdom. Like most 30 somethings who grew up in the US during the early 2000s, Adeola had one common obsession that solidified our friendship– Harry Potter. In fact, we independently wanted the same exact Harry Potter quote as a tattoo and decided to get this quote tattooed on our ribs together during our first year of teaching. And with that, nearly 8 months before our trip, we started planning, buying tickets, and scheduling events. Being teachers, we understood the importance of a healthy sense of imagination backed by a perfectly executed scope and sequence of events. 

Side note: I want to acknowledge that I’m extremely fortunate to have a partner who not only respects my independence, but also supports it. My fiance, then partner, happily watched our kids so I could take this trip. It was the longest I’d ever been away from them, and I didn’t know how it would work out. Thankfully, he’s an incredible father, so things went on without a hitch. 

Day 1: Arrival

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Regent’s Park

When I first arrived in London, I had a few hours to kill before Adeola arrived. I decided to store my bags at a train station for the day (at £6 it was a bargain) and walk around. I wasn’t expecting the Late May/Early June weather to be so chilly, so I made sure to bundle up. I first spent a few hours strolling Regent’s Park, taking in the beautiful sculptures and fences. I later stopped by the British Museum and fawned over historical artifacts like The Rosetta Stone and other incredible antiquities. It was strange, however, to see so many historical items away from their ancestral lands. I left the museum inspired but a bit melancholic. I continued to walk around the city, stopping for

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Rosetta Stone

some fish and chips for lunch. After a good meal, I suddenly felt an incredible urge to lie down. I made my way to our Airbnb and took a nap. A few hours later, Adeola arrived. We decided to try some delicious curry at a neighborhood restaurant, then spent the night in our room, like the true homebodies we are.

 

Day 2: A Market and A Play

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Leadenhall Market

Once we got a healthy night’s sleep, we felt ready to take on the day. We spent the morning in Leadenhall Market, the inspiration for Diagon Alley. It’s a breath a fresh air in a sea of similarly shaped modern, concrete buildings. The market features gorgeous Victorian touches and dates back to the Roman Era. The slatted ceilings, red and gold paint, cobblestone streets, and filigrees make any visitor feel as though they’re stepping back in time. We spent some time at a pub, enjoying some beer and desserts, then ate a quick lunch of fish and chips (yes, in that order).

After this, we headed off to the West End so we could watch The Cursed Child. I know

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We came to London for the tapas.

many Potterphiles have strong feelings about this play, but we personally really enjoyed it (though it should have been a musical!). We didn’t know much about the play before we watched it. I’m a firm believer that plays are meant to be enjoyed on stage, not through reading, though I recognize that not everyone feels the same way. But I think not knowing anything about the show worked in our favor; we were mesmerized by the effects, and sucked into the story line. Imogen Heap’s soundtrack truly set the mood for each scene. During intermission, we stopped for tapas at a tiny Spanish restaurant

Once the show was over, we wandered around Trafalgar Square, popping in and out of souvenir shops. When the sun finally began to set, we made our way back to the Airbnb, reminded of all the carefree nights we spent walking home in downtown Memphis, after a long week of teaching.

Day 3: A Studio of Magic and a Visit to King’s Cross Station

IMG_0864Early morning the next day, we ate a quick breakfast on the go and made our way to the WB studios where all the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Adeola surprised me with a Gryffindor blazer (she donned a matching Ravenclaw one). Both blazers contained hidden wand pockets, so we slipped ours in and headed to the studio. We took a bus (double decker, naturally) and made our way towards the suburbs. After we crossed the security check, we wandered through the sets, hitting peak nostalgia as we entered “The Great Hall”. The set was smaller than we’d anticipated, but it looked just as we remembered– long wooden tables lined up, stone floor, and wooden beams finishing out the view. The costumes of each of the professors stood at the head of the room, detailed and beautiful, just out of reach thanks to security guards and some velvet rope. 

Once we walked through The Great Hall, we made our way to the rest of the set pieces, peering into “The Burrow”, admiring the “Prefect’s Bathroom”, and eventually exiting through a replica of “The Forbidden Forest”. As we left the studio, we admired the model set of Hogwarts, a gigantic structure that put the entirety of campus into one room. We left the studio in the early afternoon, a bit of jealousy creeping in as we watched school groups and young children bask in the magic they were still young enough to wholeheartedly believe in. 

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We then made our way to King’s Cross station and attempted to cross Platform 9 ¾. Though we didn’t make it through, we took some amazing pictures and purchased more souvenirs to add to our ever growing collection. We then took a quick tour of “Little Venice” and rode a small boat with a Kiwi who taught us some slang while pointing out

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May we never grow up.

some sights on the Grand Union Canal. We then made our way to a pub, drinking pint after pint and reminiscing about the years we’d known each other, reminded of our first “date” in a bar in downtown Memphis so similar to this pub (it’s called Bardog, and they have stiff drinks and delicious sliders). With all the walking we’d been doing, we made up for the calorie loss in fried food and heavy beer. Sluggishly, we made our way home for the night, our last night in the Airbnb. 

Day 4: Scotland or Bust

No Harry Potter themed trip can be complete without a trip to Scotland, birthplace of Jo herself, and the true location of Hogwarts. We took an early morning flight to Edinburgh, excited to get a change of scenery. This is where our troubles began. I had booked a tour of Edinburgh Castle that came with an afternoon tea. We decided to get some tea before checking into our Airbnb. Armed with our luggage and purses, we hiked up Castle Hill, confused at how it had grown so much warmer in this northern climate. After finally making it up the top, we realized we weren’t allowed to bring our bags with us. I scrambled for our tickets and realized they said the same thing. After apologizing profusely to Adeola, I decided to go to the ticket counter and see if we could push back our tea reservation while she hiked down the hill, both bags in tow. After a few phone calls and a few trips too and from the ticket counter, we got our tea time rescheduled. We made our way through the castle, exhausted and clammy. Between the crown jewels and views of the city below, were were soon dizzy and ready for some rest. We sipped our tea and laughed about my confusion. We then made our way back down Castle Hill, then hopped on a train back to the airport to pick up our rental car. We had big plans for the next day that involved driving on the left side of the road. But first, we needed time to practice. 

Let me tell you. I already have a tough time driving, but add to that a complete reversal on every aspect of the practice… let’s just say driving was quite interesting this way. We survived our trip back to our Airbnb, parked the car, and turned in early for the night, sleeping beneath the gorgeous wooden beams in the attic of our hosts home. 

Day 5: The Road to the Hogwarts Express

We woke up early Saturday morning, fighting off the bitter cold (well, bitter for my Florida born and bred behind). We didn’t even eat breakfast, figuring we could just grab something on the road. We had 4 hours to make it to Fort William so we could check in to the first leg of our train ride along the Glenfinnan Viaduct. We’d both driven in other countries before, so even if we weren’t totally confident about driving on the left side of the road, we figured we’d make it to our destination with time to spare. 

We were wrong. 

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What’s an adventure without a few obstacles?

I took the first leg of the journey. Scotland is… breathtaking. Literally. We had to stop at one point just to admire the mountains and lochs we kept passing. I’m 98% sure I saw a unicorn at one point. Definitely some pixies. After a couple of hours, we stopped for some food, then Adeola took the next leg of the journey. That’s where things got tricky. The road noticeably narrowed. Soon, shipping trucks passed us by, dangerously close to our tiny car. With maybe an hour to reach our destination, we started to get nervous. We almost reached the city when another truck came and POP! went one of our front tires. Adeola looked mortified, but frankly, I was just glad we didn’t get into an accident. She apologized profusely as we waited for the tow truck. The rental agency didn’t give us a spare; instead they left us with a faulty compressor. We watched Ally Wong’s Baby Cobra special and laughed at how ridiculous our plan had been. Why didn’t we just drive to Ft. William the night before? But what’s a trip without some hiccups? At this point we realized we were even and just decided to roll with the punches. The tow truck picked us up, dropped off our rental at a mechanic, then took us to the train station. We didn’t get to ride the steam engine, but we did take an electric train to Mallaig. We saw all the sites we would have seen on the other train, though we didn’t get to hop off and explore some of Scottish towns that were the inspiration for Hogsmeade. 

Later, we arrived in Mallaig just in time to catch the Steam Engine back to Fort William. We found our train car and had a pleasant ride with two married couples. One pair was an older couple who purchased a tea service for all of us. The other was a younger couple; the husband was as big of a Harry Potter fan as us which made for great conversation. We relaxed and laughed during this second trip, enjoying some wizard inspired cocktails from the bar cart. 

Finally, we made our way back to the mechanic, picked up our car, and sped our way back to Edinburgh, this time mindful of the rocky edges of the road. We returned our car with no issue, picked up some pizza on the way home, and promptly stuffed ourselves while watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, laughing at the ridiculousness of our day. 

Day 6: Potion’s Class is in Session

On our last full day in the UK, we ate a hearty Scottish breakfast, complete with haggis sausage, and flew back to London. We checked into a tiny hotel room near Victoria Station and made one last trek to a Harry Potter themed destination: The Leaky Cauldron. This pop up bar was the perfect mix of nostalgia and alcohol. We walked down a narrow, dim staircase. At the base of the stairs, we were given robes and wands, then offered seats at a high top table. We had 4 rounds of drinks. The first round involved a quick potions lesson where we made a color changing drink. The second one involved waving our wands at the “Tree of Life” so we could procure some beer and cider. The third involved rhythmic dancing and chanting. We then added a bonus drink which involved some fire (and prayer). Four drinks later, we were perfectly buzzed and found a tiny fish and chips shop. We made our way to the hotel for the night, vegging out and making sure we were packed for our flights the next day. 

Day 7: It’s so Hard to Say Goodbye

My flight left before Adeola’s. She graciously offered to eat breakfast with me and see me off to the train station. Though I was more than ready to go home and spend some time with my family, I was sad the trip was over. It’s so rare to find a friend like Adeola, someone you can easily travel with, someone who inspires you to be your best self, someone who gives so much and expects so little in return. I met her in the most difficult time in my life. My mother had just passed away, we both moved to a new city, and we both were adjusting to one of the most difficult professions– teaching. 

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The Ethnically Ambiguous Duo Takes on the UK

As I boarded my flight, I realized how privileged I was to live the life I do. I’ve never seen Buckhingham Palace in real life, I don’t know where Parliament is, and I’m not sure that I’ve heard Big Ben ring. But I got to live out a piece of my childhood with my best friend, and that is more than enough for me.

How a Visit to Switzerland While Studying Abroad in College Impacted My Career

I was studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France for an academic year from Fall 2008 to Summer 2009. Coincidentally, I had met a French girl the year before who was studying abroad at the University of Michigan for a year. Even better, she was from the school I was planning for over a year to attend called the Institut d’Etudes Politiques-Aix (IEP aka Science-Po-Aix). Her name is Julie Mandoyan, French-born daughter of Armenian immigrants, and I have to thank her for changing my career outlook forever.

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Here I am with Julie on the right

Not only did we spend some time together in Ann Arbor, but we organized my arrival in the Fall after she would have already returned home. Her and her family welcomed me in their home for a couple of days in Marseille, France because the international airport is located there, and Aix is less than an hour away. She was technically accompanying me to Aix, not to return to the IEP, but to ask for her school transcripts that stated she had completed her Bachelor’s Degree after studying abroad. In France, most Bachelor’s programs take 3 years, the 3rd year is commonly spent abroad in the Erasmus program, but almost all French college students continue their Master’s program right away for 2 years. Furthermore, the average French college student completes a total of 5 years in school to complete their Masters all at the same school without the need of GRE’s or applying again. On the other hand, Julie was accepted into a prestigious Masters program called the Graduate Institute of Geneva in Switzerland. The IEP made it close to impossible to give her paperwork and transcripts because this is not a common occurrence, but yet she was able to get it done, therefore she moved to Geneva!

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Julie took this photo of my in Marseille, France

Fast forward a couple of months living in Aix around winter time in February 2009, I decided to finally visit Julie in Geneva. We planned on touring Geneva, visiting the United Nations headquarters, and then a trip with her graduate school friends to go skiing in the Alps.

A walk around Lake Geneva and the Freddy Mercury Statue

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A Tour of the United Nations Headquarters – Palace of Nations:

It was a dream come true to be able to see this building. I always knew since I was little that I wanted to work internationally, but visiting this location inspired me even more. In the following photo I’m acting like I submitted my job application to the UN:

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A road-trip to the Swiss Alps, blocked road by an avalanche, skiing, and finally arriving to our wooden cottage (called “chalet” in Swiss French, pronounced sha-ley)

Overall, because of spending time with Julie and her classmates, I decided I wanted to apply to grad school in International Affairs in the future. In fact, I applied to her program in 2011 but unfortunately did not get in. However, I did get accepted to the University of California, San Diego – School of Global Policy & Strategy which was a blessing in disguise because it was significantly less expensive and much warmer than living in Geneva.

Nonetheless, thank you Julie and Switzerland for inspiring me to take my career route of International Development. I will never forget it, and hope to one day have an opportunity to work in Geneva one day.

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How to Find an International Degree Program

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It’s no secret that the cost of higher education in the US is a nightmare and that my generation is defined by student loan debt. A perennial favorite of news outlets is to talk about the cost of education in other countries and how many American students are looking abroad for school.

While they always share the success stories, they never tell you exactly how to find an international university for that degree. In the last year I did a lot of research, and here’s a guide on higher education abroad!

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What schools are best? Who offers programs in English? Where do I see myself living? Does it count in the US?

Why do I want to study this specific field and what am I willing to do to get there?

For me it had been brewing a while because I blog about museums, so a future working with museums and cultural heritage was what I wanted. This guide will be written from that POV and my desire to get a Master’s. My location focus is on Europe. The process began in March 2016 and ended exactly a year later for application deadlines.

This guide can also be adapted for undergraduate use.

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Research organizations in your field that serve as a network for professionals.

I found the American Alliance for Museums had a directory of Museum Studies and Related Programs, and the National Council on Public History had their own.

I used LinkedIn to search and message people that listed the orgs as an affiliation and noted where they went to school to check out those programs. I also made contacts with individuals through their groups, including one who became my mentor throughout the process. They directed me to other people and I began interviewing them about their experiences to get a realistic picture of the field.

After speaking to roughly 15 professionals in varying areas, I felt adequately informed on what to expect after completing an MA.

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Identify a region you can see yourself living and studying in.

I didn’t want to rule out US schools and wanted to compare information to something I felt comfortable with. I looked at states I could see myself living in and then went to each university’s website to search their departments. I made a spreadsheet with each school’s information, a direct contact, and cost. Separate from that I made a notebook of pros and cons for every program.

The listings were generous with US programs, but sparse with international options. I found a global listing on another museum website that gave me the first step in where to look abroad.

The US was the easy part. What followed took weeks of work.


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Cross Check, Triple Check.

The biggest hurdle in finding a program taught abroad was finding on that was only in English. The problem with many international school listings is that they are never consistent, lack important details, and open up a whole world of new terms and scheduling. Even University websites can be vague about the language.

I used FindaMasters.comMastersPortal.com, and GradSchools.com to search for specific terms and made a list of schools. I even looked up the schools that attended international school recruitment events to see if they were relevant.It didn’t feel complete, so then, using this amazing map tool, I manually went through every single country and looked up every single university to catch any I missed and confirm that each had what I wanted.

You can imagine the time this took, and so make sure you note every url, email, and program name. Set up a folder in your email for future correspondences and tag email threads with a school name.

I also discovered that “museum studies” was too vague and limiting, and many listings and schools used “cultural heritage”, “heritage studies”, or “heritage preservation”. Expand word choices and if you see a phrase pop up often, write it down and use it in your searches.

6

Say Hello, Look Up Funding


After dozens of university websites, I finally had a list. By now it was June.

I emailed department heads to ask for more information, hit up students on LinkedIn, and looked through Facebook groups of current students. I narrowed it down again and again, and then moved on to visiting the schools that were local to me in the US. I made appointments and talked to their department directors, including about financial aid.

When my top US school would have cost triple the amount of an EU program, not including cost of living, the list became smaller. Many programs in the EU are for a year and were significantly more affordable.

Tuition for a Master’s from some my selected schools:
(not including living costs or fees)

2 years in the US: 

$59,680 (Mid Atlantic School)
$47,653 (Northeastern School)
$33,072 (State School)

1 year in Europe:
$21,015 (United Kingdom)
$14,517 (Netherlands)
$8,783 (Denmark)

Unfortunately many US-based scholarships are not applicable to foreign schools, and the few grants and scholarships available from international schools are usually reserved for top GPA applicants.

The US Department of Education offers this FAQ with details about Federal Funding and a list of international schools that participate (opens as an Excel spreadsheet). You have to fill out a FAFSA and will need your school’s country code because it may not be in their system automatically.

 

11

Will a non-American degree be valuable?

It surprised me how often this came up, so I turned to one of the most common resources used by undergraduate students here in the states: US News & World Report issue the “Best College” guidebook. They also have an online Global University Ranking.

In the 2017 guide, their method looked at 1,262 institutions in 65 countries. They included schools based on “academic research and reputation overall” rather than “their separate undergraduate or graduate programs”. It also considered those that “had published the largest number of articles during the most recent five-year period (2010-2014)” (Read more here). With this data, cross referenced with the rankings hereand here,I was able to get a better idea about reputations.

The verdict? In some cases the schools I was looking at abroad were either higher or comparable to the ones I was considering in the US.

7

See it for yourself.

I thought long and hard, spending weeks to mull every detail over and looked up the cost of living. I researched potential fellowships, the weight of EU degrees in the US, and school accreditation. All of it was a blur and intimidating to make a decision based off websites. By now it was August.

Two of the schools were in the same country within 2 hours distance of the other and they were both having open houses in November. It was the off season to travel and my local international airport had cheap airfare through Norwegian. I found myself on a red eye with only a backpack, arriving to the first open house with an hour to spare.

I am SO glad that I went in person to see these places, because I would have made the wrong choice based off my original list.

 

8

I’m going for it.

A letter of motivation, a certified copy of your diploma via mail (NOT digital), a transcript, additional docs. In the end I applied to three programs at only two international schools.

Make sure you have looked each school’s application website because some places require registration in advance. Don’t expect to upload all your docs on the day you are ready to hit submit. If needed, renew your passport before you start the process.

I notified the department heads that I applied, and had I emailed sooner I would have had my fee waived. They noted my visit as an international student, and I regret not following up.

Each school strictly required a bank transfer to pay your application fee, no credit cards or online payment, and my local banking branch was confused. In addition to the application fee:
1) The bank has a fee to send the money.
2) Some schools have a fee to receive the money.

You must have the exact amount needed and confirmed with the university, and have every detail of their routing numbers correct.
Then, you wait.

and wait.

and know that you’ve done all you could do.

9

Congrats! You’ve earned this!

I emerged with an acceptance to my top choice and began the process of working with my future university’s International Student office. It’s wise to purchase a printer with a scanner if you don’t have access to one because of the amount of paperwork that needs to be signed and scanned over on a regular basis. Save phone numbers for specific administrative offices and note the time zones.

If you’re going through with a Federal Loan, the Financial Aid office will be in contact with a series of steps, and more documents, in order to secure it. You need that information completed in order to apply for a visa.

In the Netherlands, students must have health and liability insurance or else you get fined. My American policy (surprise) wasn’t accepted, so I signed up for one through the university.

When the above paperwork has been completed, you can then submit a visa application. By now you should have a renewed passport ready to go, and if you’ve got a recent headshot photo save a copy in case you have to upload it for a student ID card.

While all of this is going on, finding viable housing either though the university or through outside channels should be something you keep your eye on. Join Facebook Groups, communicate with current students, or ask your department head for details.

If you are from the US, this is also a good time to start learning the metric system and military time.

I hope that my experience guides you, and if you’ve got something you want to share or questions I’d love to chat!

As for what it’s like to START a degree program abroad? I’ll know soon enough!

Why I Run

I’m a runner, but not a real runner. I get imposter syndrome from time to time, maybe because I only started running 4 years ago in my early 30’s. I wriggle at seeing myself as part of the club of real runners. Some of you can probably relate. I’m not fast, and I don’t always love it. But often when I do run, albeit slow, I feel something that I only feel from my two feet treading ground.

It’s not about where we go physically, it’s about where we go internally. 

A wild rush of euphoria quells the noise in my head and viscerally connects me with my animate surroundings, a sacred experience that occasionally moves me to tears. Whether it’s running the same familiar trails of Austin, around my current home of Madrid, or covering new ground as I travel (literally running around the world), this intense yet comforting, fleeting feeling always finds me.  

On a perfect sunny day in April 2016, I comfortably finished the Madrid Half Marathon. I felt what many runners feel after an enjoyable finish: post-race euphoria. Later that night, despite the fatigue, I started fantasizing about the next race, and running a full marathon (26.2m/42.1k) consumed my thoughts. So, I pulled the trigger and registered for one of the world’s most iconic marathons: The Athens Authentic Marathon, a legendary route from the town of Marathon to Athens.*

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This would be my second marathon (my first was Austin 2014) and my first destination race. Visiting Greece had been on the top of my list ever since I saw pictures of Mykonos and Santorini, way before my running days. It’s one of the few European countries along the Mediterranean that I had yet to experience. Back then I originally saw myself spending a few weeks of vacation island hopping, beach bumming, mingling with fellow travelers and locals, adventuring till the wee hours of the night. Instead I found myself taking a solo weekend trip to run the streets of Athens. No beach, no islands, no late nights…just sun, sweat, and tears.

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Six weeks before race day I hit a mental block that I wasn’t strong enough to overcome. I didn’t want to train anymore. My mind started to resist long runs, waking up early, and allocating hours of weekend time for training and recovery. So I stopped. Although I knew I was setting myself up for failure, I was at peace with my decision and accepted that there would be consequences for entering a race unprepared. I reassured myself that my body would find a way to the finish line, even it if meant walking a large portion of the race. I had faith that I would find strength in the suffering.

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The original allure of running a marathon may have been the challenge of completing the distance. However, what now attracts me to the race is the journey through the distance. I have discovered that the slow and steady intensification of physical pain opens me up to an abyss of emotion and a dimension of my being that isn’t readily available. To uncover who I am, I run distances that I never imagined my mind and body could do.

“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further… past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what…running is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known.” – Rex Pace

For me it comes around mile 20, when my body starts to break down and my mental strength quickly dims, but I know giving up is not an option. With six miles to go the magic starts to happen and I’m transported to an internal cavern where I feel my vulnerability, the cold darkness and rawness of my inner self. The self-loathing thoughts enter my mind, and as I hold the space for this darkness and succumb to feeling my way through it, I know it’s only a matter of minutes or miles until the tidal wave of intense emotional pain caused by the trauma of life rushes to the surface and finds a physical form of release down my face.

As the suffering and emotional eruption abate, the focus shifts from inward to outward as I begin to observe my surroundings and marvel at the runners and spectators at my side. The collective energy of that moment, our shared experience, brings about a feeling of divine connection and unleashes a flood of gratitude that flows under and over me. This is the wild rush of euphoria I spoke of.  Its intensity exacerbated by the mileage, spreads like an anesthetic over my physical pain. Here, I tap into a reserve of strength that fills in for my lack of training, and for the last hour and a half of the race, I am consumed by this cycle of suffering to elation and back. I imagine myself as a pile of ashes, scorched by agony then reborn to unfold and rise mighty and soar like the phoenix, again and again until I cross the finish line.

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I finally cross the finish line, 5 hours and 17 minutes later. The typical external motives: the accomplishment of running an impressive distance, reaching an impossible goal, a medal to hang on the wall, an event to cross off the bucket list, are meaningless compared to what happens internally within those 26.2 miles.

That is why I run. To feel the purity of light, the sensation of floating on air, and to explore the depth of emotions that are trapped, buried, wound up tight and tucked away somewhere at the bottom of my heart, dormant and lying beneath all the other emotions I am able to access and feel with ease. It’s therapy.

With a medal and photo op at the end.

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Fun Fact

Do you know why the marathon is called a marathon? Back in 490 BC, there was a battle called the Battle of Marathon (you may remember the movie 300) where the Greeks defeated the Persians in the city of…Marathon. As legend has it, a messenger and ultrarunner named Pheidippides was instructed to send word of the victory to Athens on foot from Marathon. The distance between the two cities is about 40k/25m, more or less the distance of the modern marathon. Message delivered. Mission completed! However, this story doesn’t have a happy ending. Upon arrival to Athens and exclaiming the good news, Pheidippides collapsed and died.

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What I Learned From Teaching in Marseille, France

When I read Alexandra Tracy’s piece about working while studying abroad in France, our similar yet vastly different experiences struck me. I also wanted to learn more about teaching in Marseille.

As Latinas, both of us have studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence (I went for five months in 2011). Other than that, we spent our time differently. I had a short stay, so I took university courses, I didn’t find a job and I spent most of my free time traveling or watching Anthony Bourdain episodes. I had an insanely generous program that gave me a monthly stipend, and while I loved every second of traveling, I didn’t meet as many locals as I could’ve. By teaching in Marseille for eight months, Alexandra integrated into French culture in profound ways. She also saw a less exposed side of France:

The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim.

When you think of France, government housing, immigrants, and niquing la police aren’t the first things that come to mind. In college, I’d seen movies like La Haine, which expose crime and police brutality in the outskirts of Paris. Again, why would you bother exploring these topics when it’s easier to fantasize about macaroons, Chanel handbags (do you know how many tacos you can buy with that?), and l’amour? Because it reveals how every country oppresses and uplifts its people.

I wanted to learn more about what it was like teaching youth of color in Marseille, which many French people and tourists dismiss as dirty and crime-ridden. Teaching abroad has its challenges, but it also gave Alexandra a unique chance to see Marseille as so much more. Learn more about how teaching there made her appreciate a less glamorized, yet still beautiful, city in France.

How did you end up teaching in Marseille?

I got an interview to teach English from a Colombian-French friend who was teaching Spanish at another similar school. He organized the interview for me with the Elementary school principal. He also explained how easy and fast it was to take the bus to the location. It was about a 30-40 minute bus ride from Aix-en-Provence to Marseille with only a few stops since it was an express/direct bus.

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Adorable Fassouil at a talent show.

What were the challenges of teaching in France?

The biggest challenge for me was to deal with disciplining the kids in an effective way because I don’t think I was trained properly for that. Sometimes I was left alone with the kids, and they would do whatever they wanted. All of the foreign language teachers had their own separate room, so I was left alone there sometimes.

I don’t think it’s because they were inherently badly behaved, I think it had more to do with how I was supposed to deal with it. Toward the end of my time there, the teachers would help me more and they let me hold lessons in their classroom while they sat at their desk doing other things, and would chime in when I needed help with students who were “out of line.”

What were the successes of teaching abroad?

My successes had more to do with the discussions I had with students as a group or individually. They were so curious about my world and where I came from. They would constantly ask me questions about the U.S. and about Colombia. It was heart-warming to see them get to a point where they trusted me and genuinely liked me. I had very sweet relationships with some of the girls who made sure to give me hugs during their recess times.

Recess! They had four recesses a day at least! We need to do that more often.

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Yes, I have a fish on my face. With my other little CE1 kid.

What was the age range of your students? What was their racial and ethnic makeup like?

My kids were about 1st-3rd grade, so about six to eight years old. The majority of students were African, which was split in half between North Africans and West Africans. North Africans were mostly from Algeria, Tunisia, or Morocco. The West African students were mostly from Senegal or Mali. There were maybe one or two students who had the lightest skin of the whole school, and they looked stereotypically European. I later found out that those students were “Gypsies,” as many of the teachers referred to them (though this term is considered a racial slur). Those students most likely had an Eastern European background.

Were school staff racist against students? Was there racism between the students?

Aside from teachers referring to certain students as “Gypsies”(a racial slur) or making side comments about Islam (or religion in general), I didn’t notice much else. The school did a great job of creating a culture of acceptance. I think the racism that happened was more outside of school. The area was rough, and you could tell students didn’t have a lot of clothing to wear, came to school tired, or lashed out with bad behavior.

I know the French are very discriminatory against Africans and Middle Easterners, so I am sure it was hard on their families. Though I would argue that the social services available to immigrants are better there than in the US, that doesn’t mean that there was better access to certain jobs or better areas to live in. Many times you would hear of people getting kicked out of stores, or not accepted into certain bars or restaurants because of the “dress code.”

My French host dad was a kind man, but he said that Marseille is dirty because of all the immigrants and that gypsies wander and steal everything. What did other French people think about you teaching your kids?

A lot of French people I knew talked about Marseille as if it “isn’t real France,” as dirty, crime-ridden, and poor. It was really sad to see this attitude since I loved Marseille’s charm. I went to visit at least once every month or two outside of going for work. I don’t remember what French people thought about me working there since I didn’t really know many outside of work, and the few I did know were my age and very progressive.

I actually hardly remember sharing with French people about what I did. My co-workers were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. The best part was to see that a school, in what is considered a bad neighborhood, had such beautiful murals all around, had access to foreign language classes, dance, art, maybe some music (though I don’t remember). They probably still weren’t as good as middle class schools in France, but they sure were almost as good as my U.S. elementary school I attended.

 

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My co-workers (like Monsieur Michel) were all amazing and I know they actually cared about their students. Unfortunately, the only teachers of color were the foreign language teachers, who were majority Latinx (Brazilian, Colombian, and I). Hopefully more people of color can be inspired to teach abroad in communities where the students can have teachers who are reflections of them.

Teaching youth of color in Marseille is for someone who…

Is open and willing to teach and love students who are treated badly by French or European society. They sometimes need more attention than the mainstream French student. You will connect with them in a way that involves a constant exchange of cultural norms and practices, an interesting aspect to your job that you won’t find anywhere else. It will never be boring, and you will constantly feel like you are breaking barriers in the most positive way imaginable.

-Alexandra

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La Banlieue, the government projects in Marseille

Do you have questions about teaching abroad? Share in the comments.

Europe’s Coolest Historic Center: Graz, Austria

I arrived in Austria with my mind on Graz, all caught up in a classic case of travel envy that makes you reconsider ever wanting to live elsewhere. All the travel guides featured spectacular photos that reminded me of an I Spy book, and seeing a glorious visual treasure hunt come alive was all the encouragement I needed.

If the best historic center in Europe had to be crowned, the winner would inarguably be Graz. Nestled among Austrian mountains, this second-city is famous for its numerous, co-existing architectural periods that seamlessly blend together and flow in a way that’s unique and harmonious. Relaxed and welcoming, it’s hard to imagine anyone being unimpressed.

It’s no surprise that in 1999, the center of town was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the entire city the European Culture capital of 2003.

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A Multi-Period City

Graz began as a small Bavarian fortress on a hill before turning into the hot spot for ruling Hapsburgs in the 13th century. It’s proximity to so many other countries and culture shaped its identity and their mixed influences might best be seen in the distinct building periods including Renaissance, Gothic, Baroque, and Art Nouvue styles.

The city’s location also made it a witness to several eras of war and has the World’s Largest Historic Armory, a super cool building chock full of old weapons and armor.

During the Napoleonic War, two of the city’s biggest landmarks managed to avoid ruin when Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops occupied the city. The citizens paid €87,000 in today’s currency to spare them, and now they’re iconic symbols you can visit. During WWII, Graz was a favorite location of the Third Reich, and consequently a portion of the city was destroyed by Allied bombs…but thankfully they missed the historic center.

Getting Around and Planning Your Trip

I have never encountered a tourist guide as fabulous as the free pamphlet available around town that threw all my “things to do” right out of the window. Rather than just a map with suggested locations haphazardly listed and inaccurately placed, the book categorized things to see based on interest and/or location. You could easily open it up to any page and it would tell you what to do for an afternoon without being overwhelming. My advice is to come to Graz without a plan. You’ll be in good hands. 

Getting around was easy with the tram, and the city center is all reachable by foot (traveling to Schloss Eggenberg requires a little bit more). Mondays and Tuesdays mean a lot of the museums will be closed, and the same concept applies to the colder seasons. I travelled in the late winter on a Monday and Tuesday, (double the luck) so I didn’t see everything I wanted to, but still found a lot of great (and free!) things to do.

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There is SO much to see and do, but climbing up to the Sclossberg fortress and seeing the view of Graz is the first thing you should do. The stairs were carved into the stone by prisoners during WWII, and the beloved Clock Tower (one of those ransomed landmarks!) awaits at the peak. Without realizing it, I had timed it perfectly and arrived at the top precisely as the noon church bells throughout the whole city began sounding off. It was glorious and the kind of travel moment words can do no justice to.

I had the Mausoleum to myself and felt bold enough to lay on the floor to enjoy the heavily decorated Baroque fresco, complete with angels popping out of the paint with limbs of plaster. The attached church was also a beauty, still crazy opulent but not as showy as others. I still haven’t gotten church fatigue from the amount I’ve seen while abroad.


Right across from the Mausoleum and Church tucked away in a government building is a double staircase that’s SUPER cool. The “stairs of reconciliation” twist and wind in different directions, separating and coming together. There’s not much at the top, but the attraction is for marveling at the craftsmanship.

 

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Despite not seeing it because it closes for the winter, Schloss Eggenberg is the most impressive pick in the city for history lovers. It’s conception and idea might make you drool since the preservation of the interior is as close to perfect as you can get with these old palaces. Like Graz, it’s also a UNESCO site.

 

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Visiting Austria may inevitably bring you to Vienna, a city that needs no introduction, but consider a visit to Graz for a more intimate experience. A quick 2 hour bus ride and throwing your plans to the wind is all it takes!

…and if that’s not enticing enough, then maybe a jaunt over to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s childhood home will be😉

Great Expectations

I’m reposting my entry for a World Nomad travel scholarship about a unique experience I had in Italy earlier this year. A 2,500 character limit it was a challenge to condense a “local encounter I’ll never forget”, but I think it was great practice as a writer!

Enjoy!

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Skepticism is every solo traveller’s default, so when a friend invited me to meet a Couchsurfing host I leered and kept my expectations low. Yet once we met, I couldn’t turn down a tour of the “green heart of Italy” by the lively Michael. As we drove into Umbria’s countryside we cooed over Easter lambs, only to be reminded they wouldn’t survive past the holiday weekend. It won me over.

The day was full of things we’d never have encountered on our own. At lunch he told us to fill our “crescia”, with veggies dripping in olive oil so that each bite was decadent and wonderfully messy. Michael mentioned a friend pressed olive oil and might be free to hang out that evening. With no expectations (doesn’t everyone press olive oil in Italy?), we went off into the night.

A massive German Shephard loomed at the edge of a long dirt road, its eyes glowing high off the ground. Jack was supposedly friendly, but I wasn’t taking the chance being so far from reliable cell service. His owner roared up in a Jeep, bleached white-blue hair popping out of the dark and clear-framed glasses catching light.

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“Welcome to Vini Tili!”

Our night was more than just a vineyard walk. Marcos is a 25th generation winemaker and the captain of his family’s legacy; a celebrated organic winery with a reputation built on superb product and limited availability. His pride was beaming as he showed us around and we were glued to every word. This guy was good at building the anticipation.

I’m not wine educated, but it doesn’t take an expert to know that his wine is top caliber. We learned the family history and moved from wine to wine, our glasses sloshing with hand gestures and our Italian bolder with each sip. Every casket held a story or sparked emotion, the great barrels muffled loud laughter and my disbelief at the situation. Jake the dog was the only one keeping their cool.

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It was hard to not be inspired by Marcos’ passion. His happiness and dedication was in each word he spoke. This was something I’ve heard about but never experienced. This wasn’t just a job. It was his life.

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A tiny wine casket was the climax of the evening. It was the last of its kind, a coveted year worth more than any sum. An ancestor put their love into it at the turn of the century and its sat there since, never to be enjoyed by its maker. It wasn’t just unattainable and unique; the family heirloom represented their legacy. Liquid only for the ones that were made from it.

And we were invited to taste it.

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Work While Studying Abroad

How working while studying abroad in France allowed me to travel Europe and learn the language better than 9 years of classes. Recommendations at end of post.

Coat check at a bar and elementary English teacher. Those were my two jobs I was able to nab while studying abroad for an academic year in Aix-en-Provence, France. Whatever student loans and small scholarships didn’t cover, I had the privilege that my parents could help me with much of the cost during the year there (the rest of tuition, dorm, round-trip flight). But any of the extras like food, entertainment, and travel was to be covered by me. Though I did have a middle class upbringing, the burden of college on my family was immense. My family lived through the chaos that was the Michigan auto industry, and I had studied in France in 2008 to 2009, when the economic recession hit. The dollar was very weak compared to the Euro, and my family and I felt it. My two summer jobs before I moved in the Fall didn’t allow me to save enough to cover a whole year of “extras”. I was determined to find a job that would feed my addiction to wanderlust while lessening the study abroad cost burden on my family.


The first month or so we were in Aix, my new study abroad friends and I would go out to the international student nocturnal spot called IPN (it’s possible it stood for “International Party Nightclub”, in English, not in French) where a few French people worked, but the rest of the workers were foreigners. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Colombian guy, Kike, attending the coat check on a slow weeknight. We hit it off, conversing mostly in Spanish. I expressed to him that I needed a job, which led him to help me get a job doing the same as him, and – BAM – I got my first job abroad! I was being paid 50-60 euros a night (depending on tips) under the table, and I was only working Saturday nights for about 2-3 months (September – November 2008). That was about $70-80 at that time, which was a lot considering I was not bartending. This covered food to experiment outside of my main choice of cheese or bread (food is expensive in France!). It also covered short weekend trips like to the French island of Corsica, for example.

European clubs stay open past 4 or 5 am , so I knew I had to look for something different or else risk my health and weekend social life (i.e. time to go on trips). There was also an incident where I once got choked by a non-French male coworker who thought he was being playful and funny. I never did or said anything about the situation because I didn’t know how to handle it. Thankfully, a fellow female coworker saw what happened and called him out. Regardless, I knew that it was time to look for a better work gig.

Through Kike, I was introduced to ALL the Colombians who lived in Aix that were around my age. This group  included a guy I would later (and briefly) date, who introduced me to his sister, Linda. Another girl, Daniela, I met randomly while working coat check because we haphazardly bonded over Shakira playing at the moment she handed me her coat, and then we became inseparable the moment we both said we were Colombian. I remain in contact with Linda and Daniela to this day. They are two of my best friends. We spent some fun nights at IPN while I worked and they came to party to accompany me, but we preferred going Latin dancing at Cuba Libre or for some cheap Rosé at Splendid.

My parents weren’t too happy that I was speaking too much English with U.S. American friends and too much Spanish with Colombian friends, which they felt defeated the purpose of being in France.  However, another Colombian, William, who was also working at IPN, worked as a Spanish teacher at one of the French public schools in the area. He told me it would be possible for me to teach Spanish or English. I was more than excited to stop staying up so late on Saturdays for work.  That way I could start having a unique and fun experience with some French youngins during normal business hours. In addition, who would have thought I would meet so many Colombians in France, and that they would make such a positive impact on my life then and now?

William organized my first and only interview with Madame Vela Tur, the principal at Bellevue Elementary School (École Primaire Bellevue), a 30-40 minute bus ride away in the bigger nearby city of Marseille, France. To prepare me before the interview, he let me know that the school was located in a neighborhood that was the government projects with low-income housing. We had one meeting, and I hit it off right away with the kids. I couldn’t believe I got the job!

I was working once a week on Fridays, from 8am to 3pm for a couple of months. I later started to work at 2 other nearby Elementary schools for about 3 hours each. I worked a loaded schedule for my remaining 3 months while still taking university classes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of those elementary schools.  I was teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, about 2 different classes per grade. The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim. I wouldn’t take back this experience for the world, and I was happy to have such a genuine exchange of cultures: between my U.S. American/ Latin American/ Colombian culture, and their French or African or Middle Eastern or Gypsy or Muslim culture.

I ended up working there from about November 2008 to June 2009, and it was a challenging but beneficial 8 months out of my study abroad experience. In fact, I was able to help a fellow U.S. American classmate, Brandon, land a job teaching too. Because of this job, I was able to travel to 7 other countries in Europe. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the extra income.

Do not pay attention to criticisms from your family or friends. If most of your social network speaks your native language(s), yet you are working while studying abroad, the best language experience you will get is if you work with colleagues who are local. It’s usually hard to befriend locals, therefore this is the best way to connect with them, befriend them, and be immersed in their language in the most useful way that is not learned in a college course.

Recommendations
It can be tricky to find a job while studying or living abroad depending on visa restrictions. Here are 3 easy jobs to research online before you travel to the new country, and/or on the ground when you arrive there:

Teach. The easiest job to find as a foreigner with a student visa is teaching English or another language like Spanish or Portuguese. Many require a TEFL certification, but some don’t. Do your research to see what exists in the area you will be in because chances are there are plenty of elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and adult evening classes for you to teach. Connect with other foreign students who teach since they know direct contacts to people who hire for these positions.

Au Pair. Basically, you get room and board paid for while you take care of a family’s kids. Most times you get an extra stipend to spend for yourself and access to a motorized vehicle. This might be tricky if you have a set school schedule, but it is possible to balance the two. Daniela, my Colombian-French friend I mentioned earlier, worked as an Au Pair in the UK while she completed her studies AND worked at a nearby school.

Work at a bar or restaurant. You may be able to find a job that pays you under the table by bartending, bussing, or other jobs like coat check. Try the bars or restaurants that are frequented by a lot of international students or run by foreigners, especially if there are other Latinxs there. Be wary that “under the table” isn’t always the best option since things can go wrong or the workplace might be unsafe.

Odds and ends. Translate documents to English. Babysit. Task Rabbit offers remote jobs, or find a similar local app. Intern for a company that wants English/Spanish/Portuguese speakers. Find work you can do remotely for your university, with a connection, or for a company.

Even if you aren’t able to secure something before you arrive to your destination, remember that it’s always easiest to find a job on the ground. Network with people who are foreigners but who have lived there for at least a year, they will have the best knowledge in terms of connections for foreigners, and will empathize with you the most. You will most likely find something quicker on the ground rather than sitting at home researching online. You have to be active about talking to people or else you won’t find anything.

For more photos of my teaching experience, click here!

Stay tuned for a future post about my summer internship experience in Paris that followed my academic year in the South of France.

Were you able to find a job while studying or living abroad? What did you do? How did you find the job?

 

Searching for a Piece of Latin America

I spent the previous year in Mexico, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. I’ve spent the last 8 months in Copenhagen, Denmark and enough time has passed for me to start feeling a little homesick, however my homesickness is a mixture of many homes. It’s a soft kind of homesickness that motivates me to search for anything related to Virginia/the US, Mexico, Ecuador, or anything Central or South American. It’s easy to find food and activities

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American food aisle

related to the US here. Grocery stores often have an “American food” section and chains like Starbucks are found across the city. However, finding anything related to Latin America is much more difficult.

 

When it comes to food, I’ve had very little success. Most of the time when you see the words “Authentic Mexican”, it will be Tex-Mex. Although I enjoy a huge plate of Tex-Mex food, I haven’t had anything impressive. There have been two instances where I’ve been close to finding something close to Mexican food. The first was at a taco stand at Papirøen (a indoor food market) where I ordered two quesadillas. The two guys working the stand were from Mexico and one guy grew up in Coyoacan, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Mexico City. The guys were friendly but their friendliness didn’t make up for the terrible quesadillas. They were small and overpriced and I’m sure they knew it too because they

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Danish Tex-Mex

gave me a discount without me even asking for one. I’m sure their tacos and quesadillas are great for Danes, however I was not pleased. A few weeks later I came across a little food truck spot where there was a truck selling tacos and sopes. I decided to try a sope because I figured it would be impossible to ruin one. Well, I was wrong. I sat down at a bench and took a bite. The sope was as hard as a rock! I bit so hard that all the toppings fell off. I ate what I could and hurried out of there.

 

I haven’t found any Ecuadoran, Peruvian, or any other Latin American food. However there is a Latin American market every first Sunday of a month and I’ll try and make my way to one of them. Although I’m not an impressive cook, I rather get a hold of some ingredients and cook some dishes myself.

Where I definitely have found some success in in the music scene. Copenhagen boasts an impressively diverse music scene for such a small city. Not too long ago I saw Sonido Gallo Negro perform at a venue down the street from where I live. I also had the chance to see IMG_1691them in 2014 in Mexico City. Dengue Dengue Dengue also came recently and their concert was sold out before I could get tickets! Bomba Estereo has even played in Copenhagen for free at an outdoor concert. They, along with Ana Tijoux, will be in Denmark in July to play at a well known festival called Roskilde. Also, I’ve heard reggaeton and bachata being blasted out of boomboxes once in a while. There are several salsa clubs but I’m an awful salsa dancer so I’ve stayed away. I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to hear some great music during the summer months.

But what I miss the most is the friendliness and hospitality I saw while I was in Latin America. There were many instances where I was lost and instead of just getting help I got a great conversation and heard good stories. The openness and friendliness is what attracted me the most because I’m a shy person but being in such an environment helps me loosen-up. Danes are friendly but they aren’t open. They rarely initiate conversations and they stick IMG_1689to themselves. If you want to befriend a Dane, you’ll have to put in a lot of work. It is a little exhausting and it makes me miss being in a place where people’s social skills are much better than mine.

Overall when it comes to food I’m a little homesick here. When it comes to music I’m pretty content. I think Danes aren’t really aware of what Latin America is or has to offer. I’ve met a several Danes who have traveled around Latin America and while they’ve enjoyed their travels, it hasn’t translated into a broader understanding of the complex continent’s culture.