Hello from Prague Introductory Video

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Appreciation Birthed Abroad

It is hard to judge just exactly how I have grown from my time in Tanzania, though I can feel something different inside me. Perhaps when I return to the States, the ways in which I have changed will become evident. I know my perspectives have been altered, my mind widened, and my tolerance for stuffy uncomfortable bus rides has grown more than I ever would have hoped. I know that I have learned more in Tanzania about life, the world, and the environment than any traditional classroom could have taught me. This experience both led me to have a greater understanding of Tanzanian life and culture, and yet also humble me in realizing how very little I really know in the world. I have witnessed beauty and suffering. I have experienced joy as well as pain.

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I don’t really know what could prepare a person for cultural immersion coming from the States to the heart of a developing country. I’m actually quite good at adapting and acclimating to new cultures and situations, so that aspect wasn’t too hard for me. What was hard though, was comprehending how differently people on this side of the world lived. It was easy for me to deal with living in a mud and stick hut with the Maasai for a week because I knew it wasn’t permanent. It wasn’t an overly big hassle for me to cook over a fire or wash my laundry by hand for three months, because I knew soon enough I would have access to a gas stove and a washing machine. But what of them? Tanzanians live what many Americans would consider to be “rough lives.” Very few people have homes that include appliances (or even electricity for that matter), a large majority of people cook over fires in outdoor kitchens, and showers are done with buckets of cold water. Yet, most Tanzanians live these lives humbly and with grace. Our program director for study abroad said something that really struck me: “There is a difference between simply being involved, and being committed.” During my time in Tanzania, I only had a chance to be involved. Even though I didn’t have the time to commit to any one issue, that did not detract from my incredible learning experience about both the people and the environment of Tanzania.

What these people have taught me by allowing me to enter their lives and experience their culture not as a tourist, but as a student eager to learn, is that the United States really is just one small part of the world. Despite our tremendous influence, it is important to remember that not everyone has the privilege of living the way we do. I learned the importance of getting out of our western bubble and seeing the rawness of life in a developing country and I am so thankful for this opportunity. Looking beyond the fancy tourist safari lodges, Tanzania is made up of a lot of good people just trying to live their lives and provide for their families. It can be hard, but it is
also beautiful. I have been filled with a greater appreciation for my home in America and the endless opportunities I have the ability to access as a student. These are things I will never take for granted again.

I hope to return to Tanzania, or anywhere in Africa one day in the hopes of spending more time experiencing and understanding culture, providing outreach in the realm of education and conservation, and most importantly, moving away from simply being “involved” to instead becoming “committed”.

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Pop-Tarts and Traffic Laws

The water pressure in my shower is glorious.  The hot water is, indeed, hot.  And the internet– it’s so fast!  It’s everywhere!

Why did I ever leave?  The United States are great.  There are traffic laws.  And pop-tarts.  And American coffee.

Being able to go barefoot around the house?  For the first time in four months?  Because I’m no longer living in the Middle East?  Awesome.

Telling people I’m vegetarian?  And having them know what that means?  And not debate me about it?  Awesome.

Public transportation being regular and timely?  And having set routes?  That I can actually look up online?  Awesome.

We might as well be the United States of Awesome.  So I’d like to take this opportunity to express my great appreciation for the US.  In the less serious ways, and the more serious ones– personal liberties, freedom of press, etc.  I’m grateful to the four months away from it to remind me of the big things and make me, for the first time ever, really think about the little ones.

But.

(You knew that conjunction was coming, didn’t you?)

But there’s a lot to be said for Jordan as well.  For the call to prayer, a beautiful, ethereal sound to punctuate the day with moments of reflection.  For the ability to find a taxi anywhere, any time, and make it all the way across town for less than $7.  For the fact that there’s no such thing as nosy, so you and a complete stranger will go from “Hello!” to “So why don’t you have children?” in five seconds flat.  For the family-oriented culture that reminded me to appreciate my own.  Even for the strict social rules, since they helped me to become more conscientious, polite, and professional.  Jordan was beautiful, in so many ways, and I am honored to have experienced its culture.

I love the US– more than when I left, even– but the magic thing about love is that it’s not a finite resource.  Coming home and realizing the amazing things I’ve taken for granted in no way diminishes my love of Jordan.

And, really, that’s why I left in the first place: to find someplace I love, be it a new place or new appreciation for an old one.  Next year is senior year, so I’ve got some downright terrifying decisions coming up, and a big one for me is– do I want to live in the Middle East after graduation?  Stay to work in the US?  Return to North Africa, where I first discovered my love of Arabic?  And now, I think I know– but that’s for me to occasionally agonize over in sleepless nights, and you to find out.

Suffice it to say, being in Jordan has taught me about Arab culture, American culture, and myself.  And trading four months of really, really amazing showers and speedy internet for that understanding was totally worth it.

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“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food.”

“You need to understand that everything in Serbia revolves around food,” my host-mother told me as I accepted a third helping—sans protest—of her delicious Sarma (mince-meat wrapped and cooked in cabbage leaves). “It doesn’t matter what is happening, food is always in the center!”

My three months in the Balkans have adequately communicated that whatever the occasion is, it absolutely relies on the presence of food and drink. For the Balkans in general, food is the conversation and substance of life.*

One of my favorites, šopska salata is made with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and crumbled or grated cheese.

One of my favorites, šopska salata, is made with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and crumbled or grated cheese.

 

NEVER SAY NO
Serbian cooks spare no oil, sugar, butter or any other traditionally “fattening” but flavor-intensifying measures when preparing their daily goods. In fact, a typical response to any complaining about gaining weight while in Serbia would probably be met with the common phrase “poprevila si se” which literally translates to “you fixed yourself”—as in gaining weight is always an improvement to one’s profile.

It is also customary that, especially as a guest, your host will continue filling your plate despite even the most adamant of protest. While you are expected to admit defeat (because you literally won’t be able to eat any more)—i.e. “ne mogu” (I can’t)— it is downright rude and devastating to your hosts to refuse. Just. Keep. Eating.

Serbia has so much to offer in terms of food that I didn’t miss much from home. A friend and I did manage to develop a craving for marshmallows, however, which was satisfied with Rolling Barrel Pub’s unique topla čokolada (hot chocolate)-one of the few places where marshmallows can be found. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

Serbia has so much to offer in terms of food that I didn’t miss much from home. A friend and I did manage to develop a craving for marshmallows, however, which was satisfied with Rolling Barrel Pub’s unique topla čokolada (hot chocolate) – one of the few places where marshmallows can be found. Photo by Emilija Lafond.


DAY IN THE LIFE

Serbians generally begin their day later than the average American or western European, so breakfast is a light affair: coffee, perhaps a pastry from the local pekara (bakery), etc.

But, Serbs do not generally grab their coffee to go. Like the rest of Europe, cafes dominate the social space in the Balkans (village or city, it doesn’t matter), and sitting down for a cup and conversation are both a leisurely and necessary experience. Cafes—which do not include Starbucks—tend to fill up in the afternoon and evening when families, friends, couples, etc. gather for conversations that can last upwards of two hours.

After their morning and coffee rituals, Serbians eat “lunch” which is usually served in the late afternoon or early evening. This is the main meal of the day and can be a sumptuous affair involving a variety of traditional dishes. A host might offer you supa (soup) first, then salad and a main dish. And at my host family’s, we always like to have “something sweet” after.

Some also eat dinner later, some not. But because of the nightlife scene that is virtually always active (all night, all year), you can eat any time. Open late food stands or pizzerias feed you at night, and bakeries open early in the morning. Belgrade is always awake and never hungry.

Various varieties of burek are served with yogurt in Pristina, Kosovo.

Various varieties of burek are served with yogurt in Pristina, Kosovo.


THE STAPLES

If you’re a proper Serb, you probably have these things on hand:

#1 – Hleb (bread)
This is bought fresh every day from the local pekara – another centerpiece of Serbian food culture – and it is served with basically everything. At meal times, the bread goes to the side of the plate on the table, never on your plate.

#2 – Rakija
This often homemade brandy-type alcohol is Serbia’s national drink. It is usually made out of fruits (plum is most common, opt for cherry if you want something sweeter) although I’ve heard honey makes an exceptional version. Rakija is also the main ingredient in a variety of Serbian home remedies.

#3 – Kafa (coffee)
Turska Kafa (Turkish coffee) is called different ways depending on where you are. Serbian/Bosnian or domaci (domestic) are all versions, but it is always made the same way—boiled in water over the stove top, grounds sit at the bottom and must not be drank in any circumstance—and always delivers the same strong flavor.

#4 – Kajmak
The closest I can get to describing Kajmak is a cross between butter and cheese (it’s actually boiled dairy cream). And it’s delightful. Eat with pljeskavica, čevapi, on bread, anything!

#5 – Ajvar
And speaking of spreads, ajvar—a red pepper relish, sometimes with eggplant or garlic—is also absolutely delicious. It packs a multi-layered flavor punch great on sandwiches, on crackers, etc.

#6 – Jogurt (yoghurt)
Jogurt in Serbia is produced slightly thinner…drinkable basically. It is commonly served to balance heavy dishes and strong flavors.

#7 – Plazma
Serbia is crazy about these cookies, which come with or without chocolate, in a variety of shapes and other flavors, etc. You can also get crumbled plazma which is often sprinkled on palačinke (Serbian crepes).

#8 – Eurocrem
Like Nutella (but possibly even more popular here), Eurocrem is the universal go-to sweet spread for palačinke, hleb, etc. Half of the tub is dark chocolate, the other white chocolate.

RECOMMENDED EXPERIENCES
There are many good reasons to visit the Balkans, including for the food! Here are some of my recommended culinary experiences:

Friends and pljeskavica after visiting our favorite food stand in Belgrade.

Friends and pljeskavica after visiting our favorite food stand in Belgrade.


Out and about in Belgrade, Serbia:

1. Begin your morning with a burek and jogurt at a local pekara (bakery). Burek is filo-dough pasty filled with meat and/or cheese, and it’s to die for.

2. Visit the local pijaca (market) for fresh and delicious fruits, vegetables and a variety of other goods—you’ll never have sweeter jagode (strawberries) or prettier cveče (flowers). Serbia’s agricultural industry is unsubsidized and many pharmaceuticals are banned so market wares are essentially organic.

3. Serbian food stands are incredible. Here you can get pljeskavica, a mince-meat burger in pita bread. Add some onions, tomatoes, kajmak and whatever else captures your fancy.

4. After a long day, particularly after seeing the local nightlife, savor the favorite crepe-style pancake palačinke—sweet or savory. I recommend Nutella or Eurocrem with bananas or strawberries.

Topla čokalada (hot chocolate), warm wine and palačinke on top of a ski hill in Kapaonik, Serbia.

Topla čokalada (hot chocolate), warm wine and palačinke on top of a ski hill in Kapaonik, Serbia.


In beautiful Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina:

1. Go to the Turkish Old Town and sit down for some Turska Kafa* or Čaj (tea). This is usually served with ratluk* (Turkish delight). I recommend having dessert along with the drinks. Baklava (filo-dough pastry layered with honey or sugar syrup and walnuts or almonds) is a necessary choice, but Tufahija (baked apple with cinnamon and walnuts) is also excellent.

2. Even Serbians rave that Sarajevo has the best Ćevapčići (mince-meat sausages). These are usually served with kajmak and pita bread.

Turska čaj and baklava in Sarajevo, BiH. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

Turska čaj and baklava in Sarajevo, BiH. Photo by Emilija Lafond.

 

While visiting baba (grandma) in small-town Smederevo, Serbia:

1. Serbians are natural hosts, and you’ll often be welcomed to their home with a spoonful of slatko, a thin fruit preserve. The flavor is delightful but extremely sweet, so you will also be given a glass of water to help balance the potency.

2. And if you’re lucky, maybe your host—particularly if she is your baba—will send home a jug of zova with you. Zova is a sweet syrup made by boiling elderberry flowers; the syrup is mixed with water to make juice and is my favorite Serbian drink! And apparently it is also quite healthy, or at least that’s what babas here are always telling you about everything they make…

All images by author unless otherwise noted.

*I live in Serbia, so unless otherwise noted I will use the Serbian variant of names, recipes, and etc. However, to attempt to explain an incredibly complex history of factors that breach into all realms of identity in far too few sentences—food included—suffice it to say that Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian languages were Serbo-Croat until the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and that there are several variations in vocabulary and grammar (i.e. dialects) that currently exist (particularly regarding food which is indicative of these very consciously created cultural and political distinctions but which alone would require their very own blog post…or book actually).

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That Time I Couldn’t Speak My Own Language

The first time I think I really experienced culture shock was when I got to the Istanbul Atatürk Airport passport control. Obviously a lot of the people in line were also foreigners like me, but I was still blown away by the amount of different cultures and ethnicities I was seeing in the line with me. That is also the great thing about Istanbul. It truly is a city of East meets West. There isn’t really one culture, but a melting pot of cultures that make up the city, and I am so privileged to have experienced it.

The thing with culture shock for me is that I was expecting it, so it does not seem as interesting to talk about it. Of course a person is going to be shocked when they move outside of their comfort zone and into a world they have never experienced before. However, the thing that I never thought would happen, especially while I still lived in the country, was reverse culture shock. Now I still have about one month left in Turkey, but I still have had a couple times where I think I have experienced reverse culture shock.

The first time was when I was alone in my bedroom watching one of my favorite TV shows, “How I Met Your Mother.” During this certain scene the main characters are getting into a cab and they tell the driver the place they would like to go. The cab driver’s response is where I got quite anxious. He simply drove off… I know this is not very exciting, but there have been plenty of times when I have taken a taxi while abroad and not known if I was actually going to end up in the right place because of the language barrier. It is especially stressful when I am in a country like Bulgaria when I know absolutely zero Bulgarian. I think the reason I got anxious was because in a way I didn’t understand how easy it was for the taxi driver to understand where he needed to drive his passengers. It has been a while since that has happened to me.

The other time I have experienced reverse culture shock while in Turkey also has to deal with language. Since my American phone doesn’t work in Turkey I had to get a new phone with a Turkish number. I have to add new minutes and texting every month, however my phone shop guy doesn’t speak English very well. I got into this routine of what to say in Turkish to him so I could be in and out within a few minutes. Last month he hired a new girl, so when I went in the last time I dealt with her. She is foreign and speaks perfect English, so this should have been even easier to do than when I deal with my normal phone shop guy. Weirdly enough, it was not. I guess since I had perfected how to explain my plan in Turkish, I never really learned it in English, so when the new girl asked me what to add to my phone I had no idea what to tell her. In the end I figured it out, but it was still extremely shocking that I couldn’t add minutes to my phone in my native language.

Culture shock is an amazing thing that I want to keep experiencing for the rest of my life. There is nothing like it and everyone should have the opportunity to experience it at least once. At the end of June I will return to the States and I am sure I will have plenty more reverse culture shock experiences to tell.

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Tanzanian Bonds of Friendship

Has it been easy making friends in Tanzania? Well it’s certainly been a wild ride.
Tanzanian culture is by nature, very friendly. It is up to one’s self to decide which friendliness is genuine and what is simply good marketing to convince you to purchase souvenirs.

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Overall however, I found it was incredibly easy to make local friends if you were willing to give it a chance. Simply by practicing Swahili with locals they would think twice about selling their merchandise to me and instead strike up a conversation. By the end of the day, I knew that if I ever came back to that part of town a week later, that person would recognize me and greet me as a friend.

These occurrences of course are surface friendships, though this doesn’t mean that things never got deeper. Most notably during my month on the coast of Tanzania, in the small fishing village of Ushongo, making connections with locals was one of the highlights of my stay.

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Between my remedial Swahili and a local with decent English, a wonderful conversation could be had. I made acquaintances with the local bartenders, fisherman, fellow travelers, and NGO managers, exchanging with each stories of our lives thus far. After befriending the owner of a local beach lodge called Drifters, I realized how important making these connections were. Tuma first came off as a stern woman, but after she warmed up to us, she became one of our dearest friends, saving my butt with arranging a new computer charger to be sent from a bigger town via motorcycle, providing us with a home cooked meal, and sharing her experience and wisdom of Tanzanian and coastal culture. Her son was our age and he became a pal of ours as well, driving all the way up from Dar es Salaam to visit us during our second time at Ushongo. This family is one I won’t soon forget and I know if I ever return to Tanzania I have friends to visit.

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In terms of friendships within my SIT program, well that’s a story in itself. This program was made up of 21 students — 21 students who essentially spent 24/7 in shared close quarters with each other. We became a family. We had our ups and downs, like any big family, but at the end of the day, I couldn’t imagine a better group to spend these past 3 months with. It was impossible not to fall in love with each and every persons’ quirks, admire their drive and intelligence, or laugh and cry as I experienced the Tanzanian environment by their sides. Perhaps it helped that we were in a specialized program: wildlife conservation and political ecology–meaning we were bound to share some common interests. Yet, these students came from all walks of life: east coast, west coast, the south… private schools, public schools… majors in education, engineering, sociology, film, biology, and environmental studies. The diversity in our group only brought us together because despite our differences, we were all experiencing the triumphs and struggles of Tanzania… together. Without this group, without these specific, wonderful people, my time in Tanzania would never have been as amazing as it was. I will look back years from now and not simply remember the elephants and baboons breaking into our camp, the challenge of my Maasai homestay, or the difficulty of using a squat toilet — but I will remember these friends that I bonded so strongly with. The friends that challenged me to think deeper, sing and laugh louder, and cry harder than I ever have while saying goodbye. But with these friends, I know that that “goodbye” is really only a “see you later”.

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A Land of Culture Shock

To most, Southeast Asia could be considered the land of culture shock. There is no place more different in culture and lifestyle than the other side of the world, Thailand. Even menial tasks become a shock to the senses, an adventure, simply something new. It’s truly a scary and wonderful kind of feeling.

Living in Thailand the past several months has had me ride through a rollercoaster of shock and awe that I never expected. It was a constant state of relearning how to do basic tasks in a wholly new environment, in a different and complex language. Yes, there were times where the shock was probably too much and I would hole up in my room wishing I didn’t have to invent hand signs to order the food I wanted or bargain for the smallest thing. But I wouldn’t have asked for a better experience.

The first several months were the definitive months for culture shock. I was in this new country where I didn’t speak the language and was unaccustomed to the significantly different style of education my host university operated on. Street food became my new dinner, water became a commodity on reserve, air conditioning became my new best friend and motorbikes my ill-favored enemy. I even found myself speaking far less with my stateside friends and family than I hoped. I loved the newness of my new world but found myself anxious and nervous much of the time. It was something I had expected, in a sense, but not at this magnitude.

But, as my first semester of study came to a close, I found myself growing accustomed to the Thai lifestyle. I could speak the language a fair amount, had made a handful of Thai and international friends and generally felt comfortable.

The second semester would follow and sometime during the 8th or 9th month of my time abroad, I came to the realization that I had become more than comfortable in my new lifestyle. Without sounding too sentimental or hyperbolic, I felt at home. Whether this feeling came from a good working knowledge of the language or the new friends or what have you, I can say that I began to feel just as at home in Thailand as in Kentucky.

In all, I believe that culture shock is a phenomenon that needs to be experienced and is a building block of any study abroad. Sometimes it may feel terrifying but eventually it becomes a lovely part of the new life and should be cherished. As I look towards the next month and my subsequent return to America, I hope to be able to experience the same shock upon my return.

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