What a Weekend to Come Home

I returned home on a Wednesday, exhausted but happy to see my family. After sleeping a very long time, my husband took me to IHOP (because I wanted American breakfast food – not a thing in Spain). Then I sank into a jet-lagged stupor. 

That weekend, the news came fast and ferocious. There were 3 mass-shootings in the US.  Three mass shootings in the space of two days was enough to snap me back into the reality of where I live.

I sit now in a waiting room while a friend has surgery after a car accident. I fiddle on my phone, glancing from one app to another, and pause at the Metro app I have not removed from my screen. I wish I could tap it, type in Moncloa, or Vicente, or Cuatro, and then magically find myself back in Madrid, not dealing with the spiraling violence of my own country or the aftermath of car-related injury. 

Not driving and not fearing a white man with a gun… those are the things that I miss most about my time in Spain. I knew the lack of driving would ease my anxiety issues a bit. That was a given. However, I did not realize how much the dread of possible violence has become woven into my nervous system.

I’m not saying Spain doesn’t have crime or political problems. They have their own struggles right now, with a rising homeless population and sky-rocketing unemployment rates. Their political parties use some of the same divisive language we are accustomed to in the US. I am not painting Madrid as a heavenly utopia in my mind.

However, the hard part of returning home has not been adjusting to the seven-hour time difference, going back to eating dinner at around five, or cooking my own meals instead of being served in a cafeteria. The hard part is fighting fear again, feeling the little creature burrowing between my ribs as my children return to school, tickling the skin of my neck while I stand in line in a retail store, and whispering words of despair every time another news story lands.

I wanted to bring my newfound sense of confidence and freedom home. I wanted to go to festivals in Memphis having the same enthusiasm with which I dove into Pride and San Fermín while in Spain. I thought I could shed my illogical anxiety and embrace an unafraid version of me, but it turns out my anxiety was never illogical in the first place.

It isn’t me that needs to change in order to live free of worry and fear. It is society that keeps me tied up in my own nerves, and I can’t fix this country all on my own.

I don’t mean to end this post on a hopeless note. I have brought home some of the confidence I gained while living in Madrid. I have brought home a new perspective from which to view my own anxiety and assess my situation. These are good things.

However, if I could, right now, I would gather my family and friends and fly back across the ocean. I know leaving is not the answer, but the answer feels totally beyond my grasp in this country today.

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The Walls We Build Between Us

When we build walls on our land, we also build them in our mind. These mental walls are much more difficult to dismantle.

Every week, we meet with a historian who guides us around different parts of Barcelona and tells us what had happened there. Every week, this historian tells us about a wall. In Barcelona, we talk a lot about walls, so much it became the focus of one of my papers. The talk is a different rhetoric from the one in the U.S., but the “us versus them” sentiment is still there.

Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter where the Roman wall once stood .

In 300 CE, the Romans constructed a wall around Barcelona and set the precedent for the city’s long history with walls. As time passed, the walls were reconstructed and Catalonia’s sense of independence strengthened.

The story of Hadrian’s wall a couple thousand miles away is similar. This Roman wall doesn’t mark the modern-day border between Scotland and England, but fuels the ideology behind the Scottish independence movement. It wouldn’t be surprising then if some roots of the movement in Catalonia could be traced down to its Roman wall.

I don’t want to boil this complicated, painful independence movement down to the construction of a wall, but this parallel and my time in Barcelona have made me think about how walls change the way we see the world and can turn a shaky idea into solid reality.

Universitat Pompeu Fabra, where I take my classes. The campus used to be a military fortification. After the defeat of Catalonia in 1714, the government constructed the Ciutadella. This fortification served as a wall but also a form of mental oppression. It’s another example in Barcelona of how walls change the way we see ourselves and the world.

Specifically, this project has made me think about the walls I’ve built for myself. As a first-generation college student, I’ve broken many walls that have kept students like me out. I was aware of that, but blind to the ones I’ve built for myself. My first year at Georgetown, I was suddenly surrounded by people with lives I had only witnessed on television, people who I thought had everything yet they regarded as nothing. It was painful and lonely at times to live in this difference. I started to build up walls in my mind and isolated myself from these people. It often came with hatred and I knew I would be a lot happier if I didn’t see this wall all the time.

Walls are powerful. In Barcelona, I’ve realized we don’t get to choose which side of the wall we were born on, but we do have an option to keep them up. I’m slowly dismantling the ones I’ve built.

In the future, before I start building any more walls, I need to ask myself what I’m protecting myself from? Because it’s often the fear of the unknown than anything else. I need to ask myself if I would like to live with the consequences of this wall. Often, I’m better without them!

Our trip to the Sagrada Familia this week, easily the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.

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Then and Now

Before coming to Taipei, I was met with great anticipation of making this experience the most opportune that it can be. Along with studying abroad, there was a great assumption of my time being focused in daily lectures, classes, and events organized by National Taiwan University.  But what I have learned about studying abroad, is that one’s focus should not be in just the university but also in the communities and people outside the university. A truer immersion.

Studying in Taipei allowed me to immerse myself with many locals and actually practice my Chinese speaking skills in many scenarios. From ordering food, asking for directions, and having coffee with locals while getting to know each other. The skills in my communication greatly increased and allowed me to have greater fluency in the language and a better understanding of the local culture. This was greatly due to meeting locals outside of the university.

During my time in Taipei, I made it of great importance to meet with locals that shared in the same interests that I do. And these locals that I have met with, I can proudly call them friends. Sharing similar interests, goals, working in similar industries, and having our own creative outlets, truly allowed for this to be a greater experience that I could have imagined. A greater immersion. My study abroad experience has contributed to my personal development, taught me current issues affecting Taiwanese’s communities, immersed me in Taiwanese Culture, and exposed me to academic and career opportunities in Taipei.

I can say now that I am a greater person after living in Taipei during my program. I have a new perspective of life and the people around the world. I also can say that I have a greater appreciation for Asian culture and people. Seeing and being part of their daily lives has really opened my eyes to new world.

One of my favorite views of Taipei from Elephant Mountain (象山)

After this experience, I plan to continue my academic plan in mastering the Chinese language. I have learned about other programs that are offered by NTU that I can enroll in after graduation. Also, this could allow me to rekindle the friendships that I have made in Taipei. I look forward to my last two weeks here in Taipei as I finish up my program, reconnect with local friends, and continue to make the most of this immersion. As I prepare for my return to the U.S., I cannot help to wonder how much different home may feel after Taipei feeling just like home.

Stay tuned!


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Best of Ghana

These are a few of my favorite shots so far in Ghana and their stories.

Bakatue Boats – In the town of Elmina, there’s an annual festival during the first week of July to celebrate the opening of the harbor for fishing. I snapped this photo during the festival when a local acted as a tour guide to me and a few compatriots in the hope of receiving a tip (He got one). Religion permeates the culture here and it’s not uncommon to see a religious quote or affirmation on the rear window of a van, or in this case, the cabin of a ship.
Bakatue Puppies – On the same docks, we came upon a few stray puppies. The docks were populated by fishermen, ship builders and old women. None of them paid any mind to these two.
Gifts – On the hill above Elmina town is Elmina Castle. The old slave trading fort’s history is as awful as anything I’ve ever heard. The last room a captive African would enter in the castle is referred to as the Room of No Return. Outside of this room awaited the ships to carry human cargo across the Atlantic. Since the castle has become a museum, people have been leaving gifts for the former residents, ranging from flowers to alcoholic spirits. Just before the exit of the Room of No Return, where slaves would leave Africa forever, someone left this simple clay bowl. I imagine it was once filled with drinking water, but it no longer had any trace.
The Prayer – The Ghana v. Tunisia match of Afcon 2019 ended in a shootout between the two teams. With both tied 1-1 at the end of overtime, the game was decided by five players from each team taking turns facing down the other team’s goalkeeper solo. In the suspenseful few minutes the shootout took, fans at the outdoor showing we attended alternated between elation when a Ghanaian player made a goal and frustration when a Tunisian did. Emotions took hold of this Ghanaian fan and he offered a prayer to his team. Ultimately, the shootout ended in a Tunisian victory and advancement to the quarterfinals.
Taxi Driver – On Sunday morning, I cut through a taxi stop to shorten my walk to attend church with a coworker. As I passed through, drivers shouted out that they would give me a ride for little money and asked where I was going. I politely declined and most walked back to their cabs to wait for the next passerby. One, though, asked that I use my digital camera to take a picture of him with his cab.

For more photos of this trip and beyond, you can follow me on Instagram at @CFrancisOLearyPhoto.

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It’s Not Au Revoir- Only À Bientôt! :)

Hi there! I greet you in English this time, as I have now returned to the lovely peach state (good old Georgia)! Towards the end of my month-and-a-half in France, I was actually quite enthusiastic to return home. I was happy of course, and incredibly grateful for my study abroad experience, but I couldn’t help but feel impatient to return to my regular life. I felt excited for my second year of university, and eager to make the most of my time at home before leaving for college again. 

My last few days, however, were bittersweet. As I took my usual route home on the final day of classes, it struck me that it was my last commute. The comfortable, pedestrian-friendly streets leading to my host family’s house, lined with Carrefour grocery stores and Parisian cafés at every corner- accompanied by the picturesque view of the Eiffel Tower peeking out over majestic apartment buildings, as I was lucky enough to live in the 7th arrondissement– are forever ingrained into my memory. Even now, I can picture it all with clarity. I do believe that this summer was an experience I will never be able to forget. 

Surprisingly, I felt odd adjusting to life in the U.S. again. My diet was extremely different in France, and quite frankly, I miss my daily croissants or pain au chocolat, made fresh by my local boulangerie every morning! The other day, I simply had to run an errand, and I couldn’t help but think that suburban Georgia is so much more limiting than the city of Paris. I loved being able to easily walk or take a metro to wherever I wanted to go- a museum with friends, a famous French neighborhood, or a Parisian park. Now, I need to drive almost twenty minutes in traffic to reach the nearest Wal-Mart. The lifestyle change was a bit shocking.

My route home!

Now that I’ve been back for almost a week, though, I’ve adopted a new mindset. I’m so grateful for everything that I have been able to experience this summer, and I’m ready to utilize what I’ve learned during my study abroad program in my day-to-day life. My French skills, and especially my listening comprehension and speaking, have improved drastically. I plan to practice the language every single day to maintain my knowledge. I also learned to make the most of everything the city had to offer while I was in Paris. I now plan to make more of an effort to take advantage of everything in Washington, D.C.! I’m incredibly excited for a potential future study abroad as well, and I believe that I now hold the tools to have an easier transition to life abroad. 

Au revoir is how I’ve signed off every blog. But to France, I say à bientôt (see you soon)! I am enthusiastic to see what the future holds. Yet I am sure that this was only the first of many experiences learning to adore la vie en rose, en France.

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