Meet Dimah

Meet Dimah (aka Juliet), a 20 twenty-year-old senior business student at the American University of Sharjah. Half Emirati and half Palestinian, she is the second youngest of five girls and grew up attending her father’s schools in Abu Dhabi. She went through the British school system until she was in high school, at which point she shifted to the American school system (“honestly, it was the easier of the two”).  Eager to follow in her sisters’ footsteps, she applied and was accepted to AUS as a business major, in preparation for taking over her father’s schools someday.  Like many of us, she struggled when first entering university and crawled her way back up to a 3.8 GPA after nearly flunking her first semester.

Q: So you’re a theatre minor as well, what inspired you to do that?

A: I’ve been into theatre since I was a kid and being involved in the arts is a way for me to escape away from the corporate business world. I usually am a stage manager or tech person, until this semester, whereas you know I am playing Juliet.

Q: As someone who has traveled to other parts of the world, what sets the UAE apart from the places you’ve visited?

A: The more I travel the more respect I have for the UAE, there are just things I’m not comfortable with abroad. Like for example, when I went to Russia it was so hard to change in the fitting rooms because it’s not gender segregated. Especially since I’m a hijabi now I just am not comfortable with risking a man seeing so much skin. I also appreciate how educated the country is and how so many people can speak English and it is easier for others to travel here. I also find the UAE much friendlier to tourists, people are excited to see tourists and we want to share our culture. But when we were in Paris no cabs would stop for my Mom — who wears a hijab — but everyone would stop for my sisters who didn’t wear it. All that being said, I do miss all the natural plants and beauty of Europe because all we have back here is desert and fake plants.

Q: What differences do you see between the Emirati half of your family and the Palestinian half?

A: Arab culture is generally very family oriented, and that is true to both sides of my family. The Palestinian side is more patriotic and merit focused, while my Emirati part is focused on poise and presentation, making sure I am proud of who I am. But other than that there isn’t that strong of a difference between the two.



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A Day Oot

A knock at the door informs me that the postman has a parcel for me. I pull the door wide. “Hiya,” he says, straight-faced, as he hands me the box. I smile inwardly, noting how much I’ll miss this comically cheery variation on “hello” that the Scots elicit by default. I nod and respond, “Cheers” with a soft “r” in the Scottish way. Most of the time I hesitate to practice the accent; trying to pronounce the dialect as the natives do can inadvertently resemble mockery to the uninitiated ear. But this pair of pleasantries are common enough to feel natural, and if the transaction ends there, I fancy I may even pass as a native.

It’s time to head to class so I change out of my lounge clothes and begin the layering process. Socks go on first, then a pair of long underwear and jeans. A t-shirt comes next, followed by a sweater that, along with the wool-lined jacket, I can peel off on arrival. Easy on/off layers are essential for temperature moderation in arctic climates with balmy interior spaces. I finish my apparel off with a pair of ear muffs and the the ever-essential scarf. You are as good as naked in Britain without a scarf. Keeping warm is 15% conventional clothing, and 85% scarf. Or so it seemed to me when I forgot mine once.

Properly insulated, I exit my home and stroll through a small cluster of quiet cobblestone cottages that share my lot. A fading plaque on a neighbor’s exterior wall ironically declares our charming little villa had a past life as a leper colony.  The dichotomy summons an Eddie-Izzard-ism to mind: “I grew up in Europe,” he said, “where the history comes from.” The complex is encircled by a short drystone wall, so I stroll to the south-west corner and exit by the driveway onto the sidewalk hugging the street. But just around the cornerstone of the complex, a dirt trail cuts a beeline for the beach, and a footpath by which I can walk with the eternal horizon to one side and the panorama of St. Andrews on the other.

1 lepers

The sea presents a different face every time I traverse this path, sometimes beating its fearsome fists into the retaining wall that lines the cove like an angry god scorning containment, other times lapping listlessly at the sandy shore, as quietly as a cat at the water dish. This afternoon, the tide is so far out that the terrain seems to have tripled in size, a great yawning stretch of solid ground having materialized out of a space entirely occupied by an ocean just a short while before.  The earthen landscape changes with each reappearance, as the waters deliver new offerings on every visit, like a charitable caller. By evening, every visible rock, shell and grain will be swallowed again beneath a veil of impenetrable blue.

2 walk to the beach

3 beach

To my left I pass a playground and sprawling mounds of emerald green grass dappled by grazing wild rabbits.  They lope along languidly, parting before me like a fuzzy brown sea as my path turns back into town. A host of fishing boats list stoically in the small harbor beyond, augmented by a romantic backdrop of medieval stone walls and cathedral spires. It looks like a fictional landscape sprung straight from the pages of a haunting fairy tale – no wonder Scotland is full of them.

I cross a short bridge and follow a stone staircase that rises to a road overlooking the north bay and the relics of St Andrews castle. A plaque at this site explains the sordid history of the town’s infamous namesake.  Another describes the hanging of a man from the tranquil arched window of the crumbling castle, through which a pensive tourist is presently framed. There’s nothing like a ~nine hundred year old settlement for contrary transpositions.

5 castle

Fifteen minutes after exiting my cottage door, I arrive at the department for my major; a solitary stone edifice that looks every bit the imposing castle that the genuine article down the road used to be, if not quite as sprawling. St. Andrews is full of these, as though the castle were partitioned off and distributed across the town. I pass through an iron gate, jaunt up the steps and enter by the modestly castle-sized door. The exterior causes the interior to come as something of a surprise, with contemporary white plaster walls, but the wooden banister tracing a curling staircase somewhat redeems it. I follow this up to the second story and meet with a series of white painted doors lining a nondescript hallway, my footfalls on the wooden stair echoing loudly in the noiseless corridor.

The glass doorknob to my left gives way to a narrow room with a high ceiling, framing a long table with chairs all around. A tall bay window at the far end captures an appropriately pensive view of the perennial sea and its secrets. I doff my top layers, draping them over the back of my chair, and seat myself at my professor’s left hand.  This is one of my favorite things about my study abroad experience; classes in our department rarely exceed fifteen in enrollment, and I relish the equalizing and intimate setting this allows the administration to cultivate. Speaking across a table makes me feel much more a part of the conversation than enmeshing myself in stadium seating for the oversized lectures I’ve been accustomed to.

After class, I cross a quiet, tree-lined street and turn down a sort of alley-way that cuts between buildings, generally and accurately described as a “close”. This one is uncommonly wide, however, and is referred to as a “wynd”, which Wikipedia defines as a public thoroughfare of antiquity, wide enough to accommodate horses and buggy. Closes and wynds are one of my favorite aspects of Britain in general, being broadly exclusive to foot traffic, and permitting pedestrians a brief refuge from the blare and tumult of the motorized sort. Some paths, such as this one, connect parallel roads, but the entire country is generously infused with an intricate web of walking paths, so that the intrepid explorer can largely steer clear of roaring engines spewing exhaust and stick to the fresh air and silent repose of the scenery.  These paths are customarily so narrow and subtly carved between structures as to be easily overlooked unless one knows to be looking.  More than once I wandered timidly down a subtle path on what appeared to be somebody’s property, only to be reassured when it carried me well beyond their perimeter.  More than once I also doubled back upon landing at somebody’s doorstep.

My favorite such excursion in St. Andrews was known as Lade Braes, and became my sanctuary from the rigorous frenzy of a new school year in a strange land.  The population of the tiny town more than doubled in size as parents and their progeny swarmed the streets, and the chaos of getting registered and established, compounded by the unfamiliar territory and protocols, had my nerves at attention for days.  But then I discovered the secret of Lade Braes and its quietly meandering path, allowing one to explore the lay of the land from a vantage point both intimately intertwined and eerily detached from its setting.  I tried on several occasions to follow it to its end, little realizing that it wound across counties. But the catharsis I found in its natural beauty could not be quenched.

For now, however, I am content to head into town. The wynd I am walking is cobblestone, and intersects with the main road which is paved in the same.  It hosts a large fountain as its centerpiece, and the cars make a stuttering rumble as they pass. Most streets in St Andrews are paved with asphalt, so I suspect that the stones here are intended to restrain vehicular traffic to a snail’s pace by its tooth-chattering tempo. Pedestrians roam the roadway in this spot rather freely.

I pass by a plethora of pubs, which may arguably beat even walking paths as the jewel of British lifestyle. I adore a proper British pub, and they have ruined me for public venues in the states. The standard eatery in the U.S., whether it calls itself a coffee shop, a bar, or blasphemously fancies it feigns any right to the title of “pub”, is traditionally furnished with plastic benches or chairs around generic tables in a largely undecorated square box. The true pub atmosphere, by contrast, is an eclectic combination of warm wood-and-brass accents, inundated in years of quirky accumulated relics, and often arranged in a dumbfounding labyrinth of hallways and private rooms branching off of eachother in alarmingly unpredictable ways.  You could literally get lost in a legitimate pub; stone sober. And properly realized, one should never be confused for another unless the befuddled is good and thoroughly besotted. Some of my favorite pubs include Edinburgh’s King’s Wark, the Dickens Inn and the Clarence of London, the Haunch of Venison in Salisbury, Birmingham’s Old Crown, the Eagle and Child of Oxford (a favored haunt of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis!), and the tragically shuttered “church” pub of Muswell Hill, which retained every critical aspect of the magnificent chapel it epitomized in its first life.

I duck into Sainsbury’s market.  The storefront, like many venues here, is narrow but deep.  I load my basket with fresh berries, quiche, Scotch eggs and cumberland sausages. Taxes here are called “VAT” for “value added tax”, but are thankfully included in the very reasonable prices. I spend 25 pounds on a full basket that would easily break sixty back home.   And while many big box stores in California still lack self-service kiosks, Sainsbury’s has a row of them along the front wall. I line up in a cue that leads to both the kiosks and cashiers, happy to utilize whichever opens up first.  Crowds are pretty small here, so the wait is short.

Once checked out, I load my grocery bag into my backpack and return to the street. I cross the cobblestones and turn a corner, passing ancient brick-and-mortar business fronts housing all the standard amenities, from clothing to kitchenware. The interiors look shockingly conventional by contrast, although a few retain the rustic ambiance teased by the outside. The sports store presents a particular incongruity, the neon colors of its product lines in hard disparity with the naturalistic medieval setting, particularly nestled as it is beside a cobblestone courtyard at the foot of a gargoyle-rimmed clock tower.

I’m heading for the stationary store across the street, or more accurately the local post office ensconced at the back.  Far and away its best feature is that it’s open for business all days of the week; a convenience of which I take frequent advantage. Unlike the trademark blue of USPS, the British Post, known as Royal Mail, is branded a deep royal red, rendering the drop boxes posted about town a striking feature of this gothic environment. During my time here I’ve sent a fair amount of mail home and have been pleasantly surprised by the affordable rate. Unfortunately, the tracking included by default in the States is a premium service here. Delivery times are also erratic; a gift I mailed shortly before Christmas arrived within a week, but most of my other shipments were off radar for a month.  One pair of parcels shipped together arrived a week apart. Even more frustrating is that if anyone back home sends me a gift, I’m charged to accept anything valued above ~30 pounds. This, as I understand, is essentially an import tax gone rogue.  It’s a royal pain in the Scottish arse to pay for your presents.

I turn right onto the sidewalk as I leave the venue. Behind me, a band of bagpipers are playing on the grounds of Madras college. Bagpipes, like the violin, may be an instrument of torture in the hands of the unskilled, but become something extraordinary in more able ones. Like much of Scotland, the sound of the pipes carry an ethereal, primeval quality, as though born from the depths of the earth, itself. This afforded me a shock when I discovered how adaptable they are to contemporary music.  “Bag Rock” is a thing.

The air is getting crisp so I think I’m due for an ice cream. Everyone loves ice cream, but none so devotedly as the Scots.  These people will swim in the ocean in thirty degree weather, and eat ice cream in the snow.  I stroll down South street toward The Pends and make a pit stop at Jannettas Gelateria to settle a craving for Sea Salt Chocolate. Cone in hand, I tarry in the cloisters having been taught by the cats never to waste a sunbeam. Then I turn a ten minute walk into forty searching the tide’s latest offerings.

Finally I cross the threshold of my homestead to deposit my groceries. A slip of paper beneath the mail slot informs me that Amazon has entrusted a delivery to one of my neighbors. This is an oddity of Scottish Amazon that I’ve never seen in the States. I don’t normally interact with the neighbors, but I’m beginning to make their inadvertent acquaintance thanks to this neighborly policy misfiled from some earlier era. A knock once caught me just out of the shower and I greeted an elderly neighbor in only my robe.  She chuckled, “That’s just the state I was in when they delivered this!” as she gave me my parcel.  Unfortunately I have no time to harass the neighbors just now, as I’m due at the doctor’s.  I head out and up the road to the corner bus stop, where I pay a pound to deliver myself the mile and a half to the clinic.

I enter the hospital and turn right, facing a mounted touch-screen just inside the door where I plug in my birthdate and surname to check in.  There’s no line, and no membership card required. I’m assigned to a doctor on duty, and head to my appointed waiting area down the hall. The waiting area is typical, with a cluster of chairs and an assortment of medical paraphernalia the only augmentation to the austere decor.

I have just enough time to strip off my scarf and jacket when a man calls my name.  He leads me down a conventional hospital corridor as I wonder whether I’m in the presence of the doctor or the doctor’s assistant. Standard protocol as I’m accustomed to it in the States calls for a nurse to take all the vitals – weight, blood pressure, temperature – before admitting you to a small room and directing you to a padded recliner wrapped in a coffee filter before detailing the cause for your visit.  At which point they will leave you waiting another fifteen minutes for the doctor, who will ask you to repeat yourself.

I follow my mystery man into an exam room which looks indistinguishable from any other I’ve known, barring that this room is twice the size of most and boasts a full-size desk in the corner.  The coffee-filter recliner is present, but I’m directed to take the chair caddy-corner to his own, allowing us to speak eye-to-eye.  He introduces himself as my doctor and doesn’t take my vitals, but listens patiently as I explain my concerns. He makes inquiries and, with permission, examines the rash around my eyebrow that I’ve come about, before offering some suggestions. He’s unhurried and attentive, but the conversation wraps in under fifteen minutes. With my agreement on a course of treatment, he types up a list and prints out a prescription on the spot, offering it to me with the advise that I can take it to any pharmacy to be filled. No need to worry about who accepts what insurance – Scotland has universal healthcare.

On my way out, I notice the route is funneling me toward the exit. Since I’ve paid nothing for the visit, I retreat back to reception and ask what I owe. The attendant looks mildly confused and asks for my birthdate to pull my file. “You’re in the system as a regular patient,” she says. “Do you usually pay for coverage?” “No,” I return, altogether untruthfully. “I just wanted to be sure.” I walk out the door without ever cracking my wallet.  I cross the street and turn over my prescription to the first pharmacist I encounter.  Minutes later he places a small paper bag in my hands and thanks me for coming in.  The cash register doesn’t even get a word in.  It feels unnatural to enter a venue and acquire new things, then walk out the door without trimming the waist of my wallet, but the man in the lab coat seems happy to let me go.

The afternoon now free, I decide to return home by a circuitous route.  I pass the discount store, Aldi’s, on my right. They are a small box store about the size of a mini mart in the States, and their prices are unbeatable. I usually get my bulk items there, like crumpets, vegetables and cheese, along with a few signature items like garlic dough balls. I wish that my home town in the U.S. had discount grocers as well stocked as this. One novelty of the British market experience is that they do not employ baggers. At Aldi’s, the cashier rings you up and then waits for you to transfer your purchases to a nearby convenience counter where you can load them at leisure. Many stores unfortunately neglect this feature, so bagging can be a bit of a trial. Seasoned professionals streamline this process, making it seem easy, but an inexperienced bagger like myself tends to fumble it up while customers still in cue look on impatiently. I imagine most Scots have perfected the art through a lifetime of practice.

My supplies are in good standing for now, so I carry on down City Road until I arrive at Lade Braes.  I stroll beneath an umbrella of rustling red, yellow and gold through which the sunlight dapples the ground, inhaling medicinal breaths of the musty damp earth.  The path trickles along beside the Botanical gardens and tiptoes between homes.   I study the back gates of every abode, as each bears its own unique name.  Nameplates I pass pronounce the likes of Monkswood, the Red House, Ladybrand and Netherburn.  Benches along the way are marked with dedications to others who have chased faeries down this path, before.

Gradually I arrive back in town and come to Topping and Co., a bookstore I discovered through the St. Andrews’ writer’s club.  It is the bookseller of my dreams, or possibly a JK Rowling novel. The front room hosts an actual fireplace, and the walls are literally lined with books, with ladders set against them for ease of access. The store is narrow at the front, but branches at the back into a series of alcoves arranged by subject. I lounge in the Philosophy section and a member of staff pops his head in to ask if I fancy a complimentary cup of tea. American proprietors take note. I decline the libation, however, as the clouds are rolling in and the pub is calling.

I wander back along St. Mary’s Place and let myself through the doors of the Blue Stane. (A “stane”, google explains to me, is a stone.) Straight across from the entrance is a large, ornate bar, with wood-paneled dining rooms to either side. It’s still fairly empty at this hour, so I drape my coat over my favorite booth at the bay window before heading up to the bar to place my order. When my brother was visiting we sat at this spot and played one of the table top games the venue keeps for its patrons, but today I’m here to sample the seasonal menu: a delicacy known as “mulled wine”. It’s a wine mixed with honey and spices and served hot, resembling something like a hard apple cider.

The mulled wine warms me from the inside-out, until I’m fortified for the brisk walk home. In most of Europe, there’s no pressure to make way for other patrons, so you’re at leisure to linger. The only downside is that the servers can be just as leisurely with the bill. I manage to flag one without issue, however, and he approaches my booth with a handheld credit card reader. These are ubiquitous in Scotland, so I’m told, because consumer protections require that the customer not be parted from their card. The server thus hands over the machine and I swipe without breaking contact. The device enthusiastically pumps out a receipt which the server procures for me.  I take it, nodding my gratitude.  “Cheers,” I rejoin him in impeccable Scottish.  I’m going to miss saying that.  Or at least not getting weird looks for it.

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Worldwise; Beyond St. Andrews

According to, the “southern tip of England to the northern end of Scotland would stretch from Los Angeles to the Oregon border”. I was born in central California and have family throughout the southern half of the state, but rarely visit there from my home in the northern half. It’s funny, because during the course of my year abroad I didn’t hesitate to travel that distance just to take in a show in London or eat in a pub once patronized by an infamous author. If there is one thing about the United Kingdom that gives it the edge as a destination (or platform for taking over the world, as it happens) it’s that it’s a central launching pad to the whole of greater Europe. In the same amount of time it would take an American to travel from one state to the next, you can be in another country, immersed in a different culture entirely. From Edinburgh airport it’s a ~1 hour flight to Ireland or Norway, around two hours to Paris or Munich, and around three to parts of Italy and Spain. And the rise of budget airlines mean you can book such a flight for a couple hundred, on average, and find deals for significantly less. If your dates are flexible, it’s not unheard of to find flights under $50 (you’ll pay a premium for extra luggage, but at least you’re not going far).  And there’s always international rail if you prefer leg room.

My mother was able to visit me when I did a semester in London back in 2009, but this time my brother and dad managed to join the party as well. It was the first time we were able to converge on British soil, and I was more than a little eager to show them everything I loved about my second home. We started the tour in London, where I finally got to introduce my brother to his first double-decker bus and drag the whole family on a stroll through St. James’ Park, Westminster, Leadenhall Market, St Paul’s Cathedral, and the haunting Tower of London. And of course we spent Christmas Eve in a church – the church pub on Muswell Hill, specifically.

from the top of St Paul's

Perhaps in penance for our impropriety, we had take-out for Christmas dinner.  It turns out the whole of London comes to a grinding halt for Christmas and Boxing Day, which is basically Christmas Part II.  As the Underground agent explained it to us clueless Americans at the deserted tube station: “Even the devil needs a holiday.” After Christmas we caught a short flight up to Edinburgh where we toured the castle and St. Giles Cathedral, sampled Scottish whiskey on the Royal Mile, browsed the still active Christmas market, hiked up Arthur’s seat, and dined in the beautiful port of Leith. Finally we departed for my hometown of St. Andrews, making a pit-stop in Dunfermline (as charming as it unpronounceable) to see the Red Hot Chilli Pipers in concert. After a brief respite, we rented a car in Dundee and traveled up through the Scottish Highlands, all the way to Inverness in the northern tip, before returning to St Andrews via Fort William to see the actual Loch Ness, and Urquhart Castle.

loch ness

My brother stuck around for a bit after our parents had to depart, so we escorted them to Edinburgh and saw them off at Waverly station. To cheer ourselves up, we climbed the 288 steps to the top of the Walter Scott monument, one of the central icons of Edinburgh, and took in a 360 panorama view of the city. We were so delighted with this success, we returned to London to take on the 528 steps of St Paul, before continuing west. London is just an hour and a half east of Salisbury by rail, which is the site of the Salisbury cathedral and cloisters; a structure only spared during the war because the magnitude of its 404 foot spire became a reference point for German bombers.  The 700+ year old site is also where one of the original copies of the Magna Carta resides, and just a short bus ride from the mysterious standing stones of Stone Henge. It is always a strange experience to look upon something you have seen countless times through a screen and know it for the first time with your own eyes. A place, just like a person, can take on an aura of celebrity and fill one with wonder at having brought themselves to intersect with that miniscule set of coordinates on the planet where it truly and three-dimensionally exists. Such are the thoughts I, at least, experienced at the site of it. That and, “Great Scot, this flindrikin snell is pure baltic!” (It’s cold.)

In fact, we were so chilled to the core that we decided to make the next stop on our map a little closer to the equator, and headed for Spain. We landed in Barcelona where I got robbed straight off the bus (traveler’s tip: no one is surprised when you get robbed in Barcelona) and spent a full day bouncing between the Spanish police and the US consulate.  This misfortune rather blinded me to Barcelona’s better attributes, but a luxurious stint on the Spanish rail soon found me drowning my sorrows in chocolate-dipped churros, traipsing through the fortress of Gibralfaro and snapping photos in the stunning cathedral of Malaga. We also glutted ourselves on Moroccan cuisine in addition to Spanish tapas, as Morocco is just across the Gibraltar strait from southern Spain!

dining moroccan

After my brother left, things got back to normal for a little while in sleepy St. Andrews, but my friend Michelle showed up soon enough to sort that right out. It being her first foray into the United Kingdom, as well, we made the rounds of Edinburgh and London, revisiting past delights and discovering new ones. We traveled to Birmingham to see one of my favorite productions of London’s West End (England’s Broadway), had lunch in Leadenhall, sampled the hot cider at Borough Market, shopped in the bohemian paradise of Camden, and took the Harry Potter studio tour; a sort of Hogwart’s museum where all the original sets and props are interred.

During our visit to London there was a terrorist attack at Westminster, which we were fortunate to have narrowly avoided due to a last minute itinerary change. Regrettably it meant that Westminster was shut down during most of our stay, but it reopened just before her departure. I had tickets to the symphony at Central Hall in Westminster that night which I was determined to attend, having been infected with London’s characteristic defiance in the face of adversity. After the performance, I took the opportunity to visit the site of recent tragedy and multitudinous joys. The Westminster Clock Tower (or “Big Ben” as it’s colloquially called after the giant bell at its center) may be my favorite world icon. My soul has always warmed at the site of its glowing golden edifice and rich, melodic tone, and it is always difficult for me to tear myself away, never knowing when I may see it again. There is an old photograph of my mother standing on the bridge, the rail connecting her to the imposing clock behind watching over the scene like a dignified grandparent.  It made the clock a character in my narrative long before I knew it in person.  I walked here often during my semester in London, and traversed the spot with my entire family over the holiday not three months prior. It was important for me to return to the site to pay my respects and put aside the specter of the tragedy before saying goodbye.

Mike arrived the following month. Like my brother, this was Mike’s first excursion into foreign lands, so he wanted to cover as much ground as possible. After making the standard rounds, we reasoned we could squeeze in at least one other country, and he craved an experience even more undecipherable than the Scots. We compared our bucket-lists and opted for a place neither one of us had been, and were soon departing Edinburgh airport for Venice. A child of the forest, I never thought I could like anyplace as ungreen as Italy’s Venician pearl, but it was a number of days before I stumbled into a greenspace and realized it had been lacking. Venice’s sprawling island of stone is so intricately and artistically designed that I forgot that I was surrounded by a man-made civilization. We happily lost ourselves in the labyrinth of alleyways for hours to a soundtrack of carillon and accordion, navigating a stream of footbridges across a network of canals and stumbling, unsuspecting, into sprawling plazas with sky-scraping belltowers.  Included among the latter was the illustrious Campanile di San Marco after which my own campus’ iconic clock tower was patterned. Berkeley’s Campanile will always be my favorite feature of the campus, but seeing the Campanile of San Marco leaves little mystery as to its influential impact. Even the splendor of the St Mark’s Basilica at its feet could not diminish it. The otherworldly singularity of this Italian world made me feel like I’d slipped through a rabbit hole into some kind of wonderland, and all for less than the cost of a road-trip between SF and LA.


With so much traveling under my belt, I was tempted to cocoon myself in my cottage and hibernate for the remainder of my stay, but I knew that I would regret it when I was looking back at my lost opportunities from across the Atlantic. So I charted a plan for my last hurrahs. It took me Canyoning in the exquisite Scottish wilderness of Perthshire, to seeing Daniel Radcliffe perform live on a London stage, to walking across the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol (and getting walloped by a heat wave – thank goodness for universal healthcare). I went fossil-hunting on the “Jurassic Coast” of Charmouth, and slept in a former monastery called Monkton Wyld. I wandered down meandering walking paths in the historic river town of Durham, and woke up to a sheep herder herding sheep across the evergreen hills in a remote region of the Lake District – the getting to of which was a blog in itself! I booked a trip across the Glenfinnian viaduct on the Jacobite; one of the last running steam trains in Scotland (and inspiration for the Hogwarts Express), and along the way explored the Scottish cities of Stirling and Glasgow. I found my way to the top of Stirling Old Town, along the scenic Back Walk, and across the River Forth to the Wallace monument. I fell in love with Glasgow when I was greeted by the Scottish band, Clanadonia, and laid eyes on the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. I toured the 95 year old tall ship, the Glenlee, strolled through Kelvingrove park, and made a special visit to the hairy cows of Pollok Park, in honor of Hamish who I met on the brief excursion in 2009 that first inspired me to come back to Scotland.

Thank you, Hamish. It’s been an adventure of global proportions.

for end of post

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Studying abroad- What’s the big deal!?

“My biggest regret in college was not studying abroad!” I was constantly told by my mentors that their one regret in college was not studying abroad. At the time I didn’t understand why that would be a regret and I didn’t know the benefits of going overseas. I questioned why someone would want to leave the U.S. considering how challenging it was for my family and I to migrate from Mexico to the U.S. for a better life. After much convincing and thinking about studying aboard for 3 years I finally applied to the University of Valencia in Valencia, Spain. Studying abroad was one of the most significant experiences I had during my college career. The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship gave me the opportunity to experience the world as my classroom. Studying abroad experiences are important because of the immense amount of knowledge and personal growth that is gained. Studying abroad contains a lot of exposure, experience, personal and professional development.

As a Gilman Scholar I was fortunate enough to spend a semester studying in Valencia, Spain. I had exposure to a country with unique outlooks, incredible customs and rich activities that expanded my way of thinking. I experienced a new style of education that was challenging but I learned to be more analytical and challenged my way of thinking in which I learned new methods of study and research.

Studying abroad is an opportunity to meet people from across the world. I learned about different food, religions, traditions and cultures outside of my host country because of the people I met abroad. Shared experience of living fully immersed in another culture made the friendships I developed particularly poignant and enduring. Studying abroad in also important because it will train students to be future global leaders who are effective, respectful of other cultures and political and economic systems, and willing to take a stand for the world’s welfare, not just what benefits a specific country. Students who study abroad will better understand their own cultural values and biases and will develop a more sophisticated way of looking at the world.

As a Gilman Ambassador I hope to communicate my experience though meaningful conversations that engage other students and inspire them to study abroad. I hope my experience is heard throughout my community by the presentations I do to students and staff at the community college and university. Through social media I hope to make a visual impact of the life changing experience I has overseas. Being a Gilman Scholar means I have the responsibility to represent the scholarship and the international experience that has opened my eyes to new cultures, history, and new languages. As a Gilman Scholar, my goal is to help students understand that studying abroad should be part of their college experience regardless of their background. I will always advocate for international education because it truly is a life changing experience. Overall, I learned a lot more about myself in that one semester than I did in the three and a half years in my home school because of the unique space in which I learned, experienced, and spent exploring another culture. It gave me more confidence, it taught me self-reliance and stretched the parameters of my comfort zone.

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A Few of My Favorite Places

22552945_1986770504894385_253590365397843968_nSt. Petersburg is a city where it’s impossible to just sit at home and do nothing. There is always something interesting going on or an interesting place to be. The city itself is very walkable and anything under 2km (about 1.2 miles) is considered walking distance so bring good walking shoes! There’s also a fair chance that whenever you go out it will probably rain so an umbrella is in handy, and also don’t forget cash. A lot of places here don’t use card, and the satisfied feeling of the cashier when you pay in exact change will erase any previous discomfort over the inevitable language problems that just occurred.

With so many favorite spots, it’s hard to narrow everything down but here are some of my most favorite places (as in I’ve been back many, many times) should you ever find yourself in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Cup in Cup 20 Dekabristov Ulitsa

My friend showed me this coffee shop, and I instantly fell in love. The vibe is young, Western, and hip but not in a bad way—kind of falling toward the more urban/earthier side of hipster. The music is of the American alternative variety where you can hear Big Thief or Bon Iver (I’m still waiting for them to play some Russian indie music). The amazing thing about cafes and restaurants here is that there isn’t a sense of turnover like in the US and you can literally sit somewhere for hours nursing a cup of tea and staring at the falling rain from out the window. My favorite here is the apple pie (which is served with a scoop of ice cream!) and the mate tea (of which they give you an entire pot!)—all of which costs less than $4 which is perfect for the student budget.

Gatchina Palace 1 Karasnoarmeyskiy Pr. Gatchina, Russia

Gatchina is a cute little suburb on the outskirts of St. Petersburg that is easily accessible by train or by bus. The palace is incredible—extensive grounds, a nice homage to WW2 and those who died to protect and save the palace from the Nazis (the palace was destroyed and occupied but restoration is currently still in process), beautiful restored rooms and collections, and an underground tunnel! You can see much contrast in the lavish public rooms (throne room, ball room, dining hall etc…) and the small, private family rooms. We also climbed The Signal Tower and were able to get gorgeous views of the entire town and the surrounding woods. My favorite part was the grounds. My friends and I strolled around drinking kvas and eating 30 cent ice cream cones and even rented a small boat that we paddled around the grounds. Would definitely say this is a must-visit place (it’s also not crazy touristy)!

 Yarumen 9 Malaya Morskaya Ulitsa

I think I eat lunch hear at least once a week. It’s a cozy nook located right next to a metro station and a convenient 30 min walk (or 15-minute bus ride) from university where you can get your fix of noodles, curry, or Japanese eggs. Speaking of the eggs—they’re out of this world. I highly recommend the tempura egg don. It’s this rice bowl with sea weed and tempura Japanese eggs. First of all, eggs in Russia for some reason just taste so much better than eggs in the United States. I’m not sure why (my friend and I went on a google adventure once to answer this very question that unfortunately did not lead anywhere), but this combined with the delicious Japanese style boiled eggs and you have a winning combination. Another plus is that the waiters here are so kind and ready to offer an encouraging smile as you limp along in Russian. I’ve gone here so many times too now that they all recognize me.

General Staff Building of the Hermitage 6/8 Dvortsovaya Ploshad

I prefer The General Staff Building of the Hermitage so much more over the actual Hermitage (ok the entire Hermitage is amazing but The General Staff Building feels much more manageable). Here you can find masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich (AP Euro romanticism anyone?) or my personal favorite Black Square by Malevich or rooms full of Picasso. It’s overwhelming and wonderful to just lose yourself as you wander through floors and floors of contemporary and impressionistic art (+ some late German romanticism in there too). It’s much less crowded than The Winter Palace and the art collection feels like an enlarged version of my favorite floors of the Chicago Art Institute or MOMA. I strongly recommend (plus it’s free admission for students!).

Dixy Any Street Corner in Russia

I usually dislike grocery shopping. It’s overwhelming—the choices, the prices, the measurements…As a slightly obsessive person who likes to thoroughly research and compare everything before finally making a tentative decision, grocery shopping in all its varieties is a nightmare I’d rather avoid. But I love Dixy. It’s so fun to pop in and see all the different flavors of chips you can get (Crab? Lobster? Steak? Paprika?). I also buy my favorite shampoo here (an all natural Siberian brand I’ll have to stock up on to bring back to the United States), and I never pass up an opportunity to buy шпроты or canned sprats that are absolutely delicious on brown bread. My friends and I frequently stop here for dessert as well because there’s this 20 rouble (35 cent) ice cream that is out of this world. Russian ice cream is also just so much better than American. Not sure what it is that makes the difference (need to go on another google adventure) but it’s just much creamier (meaning lactose intolerant me needs 2 lactaid pills instead of 1).

Mariinsky Theater II Teatralnaya Ploshad

Even if you aren’t a big ballet buff (I certainly am not), I think that nothing in the world compares to the feeling of going to a ballet at Mariinsky. I think it’s something in the energy—there is something so innately special about going to a concert (or any show really) where literally everyone is there because they love it and want to experience something special and it’s highly unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a concert hall before. For example, during the heartbreaking pas de deux of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet when the dancers first fall in love, literally everyone was crying their eyes out and I, too, just couldn’t stop crying. It was so beautiful. It was so heartbreaking. All at once, I just was in love with art. It was magical. It was beautiful. There aren’t enough words to describe just how incredibly cathartic and moving the experience was. Also to add to this, someone once said there isn’t a bad seat in the entire Mariinsky II and whoever said that was true. Whether you’re up in the nosebleeds or paying premium on the first floor, there really isn’t a bad place to be. The hall is stunning on the outside and the inside; the acoustics are such that it feels at once grand and intimate all in one.

And thus, here’s a sampling of my favorite places so far in St. Petersburg, Russia! I love it here so much and hope that you all can come here too someday and experience how beautiful it is for yourself!



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Spot the Difference


Now that I have been in Wrocław, Poland for nearly two months at the time of writing, I have come to notice some things that are far different than my home university in Lincoln, Nebraska as well as my general culture differences between Poland and the United States. Though there will never be an exhaustive list of interesting topics to discuss, I will do my best to describe the biggest differences and surprises I have experienced thus far in my study abroad journey!


When discussing my time in Poland with my friends and family back home, one the most common questions is, “what’re the biggest differences you see in Poland compared to the U.S.?” Besides the obvious difference in geographic location and language, there a few major things that I always mention.

  1. Goodbye, Car Culture

Of course, like many places outside of the United States, owning a vehicle isn’t necessarily commonplace, especially for those in my age group. Not only is owning a vehicle expensive for a multitude of reasons (maintenance, licensing, fuel, etc.), but in a city like Wrocław where there is an extensive tram and bus network at affordable prices, there is simply no need to drive.


  1. Academics

The pace of life here is far slower than that back home. At my university here, courses usually meet once a week for an hour and a half coupled with optional (yes, optional!) weekly lectures instead of the U.S. normal of three class meetings per week for fifty minutes (generally speaking). Additionally, professors here see no need for day to day busy work other than the occasional reading assignment. In the U.S., I am usually scrambling to finish multiple assignments for the following day’s class. Meanwhile, lectures and course readings in Wrocław are centered around student engagement with aim of producing a final term paper rather than multiple small assignments.


  1. No “Nebraska Nice”

At first glance, one might see this heading and think that I am implying that the Polish are an unfriendly people, and I can’t stress enough that this is NOT what I mean. Having grown up in a small town where speaking to one another on the street, in line at the store, or literally any setting at all, one could say speaking openly with strangers is not a rarity. In my experience in Poland thus far, however, this simply has not been my experience. It is incredibly rare for someone to speak to you casually in public if you are strangers and, at times, the language barrier between myself and the older generations here does not help. Again, this is not to say that the Poles are an unfriendly bunch. For instance, my roommate here is Polish and one of the friendliest people I have ever met in my life. The difference is, in my opinion, that many here keep their guard up until you get to know them on a more personal level, and once that happens, the cheery Midwestern attitudes that I’m used to are reincarnated 5000 miles from home!



In addition to the differences between U.S. and Polish culture that I have noticed, there have also been some instances where I was surprised by what I have seen in Wrocław, for better or worse!


  1. U.S. Influences

When I first decided to study in Poland, I had imagined that there would still exist the occasional McDonalds, but I could never have imagined the the extent to which American based franchises and culture existed in Wrocław. Not only are there multiple fast food franchises (a surprisingly large number of KFCs and Pizza Huts) and Starbucks to boot, but American movies in English dominate the cinemas and the brand names of common household items are never too far away.


  1. The Dryer is… Where?

I didn’t realize how many creature comforts I was accustomed too until I arrived in Wrocław and one of those comforts was having a dryer to do laundry. In Poland, a dryer is not something typically found outside of a Laundromat here and if you request one, you will be promptly directed to the nearest drying rack to hang your clothes. It’s not the end of the world, but getting used to laundry being a day-long ordeal is something that I’m still not quite used to!


  1. The “Native Speaker”

My program of study in Wrocław is conducted in English, which is great considering the fact that the majority of international students here are also in this program. What I have learned, though, is that many people (Poles, international students, professors) can quickly identify who is a native English speaker, causing a number of results. There are times where some become self-conscious about their English, others take the opportunity to clarify their burning linguistic questions, and I enjoy the experience of simply being able to interact with a such a diverse group of people in my native tongue. There is always a small tinge of guilt knowing how comfortable I am with the other international students in English while I don’t fluently speak any other language, but the more that you take the time to simply live, laugh, and learn with each other, the less it matters what language it happens it.


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Interning Abroad: A Stimulating Undertaking

In late September I accepted an internship position as a research assistant at the BRICS Policy Center. Its name comes from the BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. They are countries with emerging economies and increasingly regional and international influence. At the BRICS Policy Center, administered by the Institute of International Relations of PUC-Rio, researchers perform short and long-term studies on the BRICS countries and their intricacies. Now more than a month since the internship began, the experience at the BRICS Policy Center has been stimulating.

I first learned of the center’s existence while attending an event on Brazil-US relations in Washington D.C. this past Spring; as soon as I arrived to Rio de Janeiro I began preparing to apply for the application and after it became available I immediately applied and heard back in September. I joined their Social-Environmental Platform team, specifically under an international relations professor working on a project to study the presence of China in Latin America. My research therefore has been to study why and how China has become such a strong actor in Latin America, one that to this day continues to invest and increase its economic and political partnerships with Latin American countries. The project is in its preliminary stages, but what I am learning has been captivating and though the reading is burdensome and time consuming, I thoroughly enjoy reading the various literatures on China in Latin America.

When I applied to PUC-Rio, I indicated to my study abroad advisor my interest in interning while abroad in Brazil, though I never would have imagined how difficult it would be. Difficult in terms of the large commitment of my time while having to also simultaneous commit myself to four courses, a completely new life, and the constant invitations of friends to go enjoy the experience of living in a foreign country. Interning abroad can therefore be draining, yet I have enjoyed the experience, and though it has limited my time substantially, I’ve organized myself in a way that I can make time for various activities while at the same time fulfill my duties. I spend around two to three afternoons working from home every week on various readings, and then meet once a week to discuss the literature with the professor and two other student researchers. The discussion takes place in Portuguese and I can understand most of it, though when it comes to explaining what I read, and I am personally not able to thoroughly explain my thoughts in Portuguese, I change to English.

Long having heard of the acronym ‘BRICS’ during one of my courses at UC Davis, never did I imagine I would be able to work alongside Latin American researchers looking at China and its presence in Latin America, specifically Brazil. BRICS no longer is an acronym, for these countries have and continue to amass significant influence worldwide, and at the BRICS Policy Center I hope I will continue to learn more about their relationships with one another. Students should consider completing an internship during their time abroad, I highly recommend it.

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by | November 9, 2017 · 7:33 pm