Category Archives: Western Europe

Then and Now

Before traveling abroad, many people take on an overly confident tone that they can handle anything that life throws at them. After all, this is nature’s fight or flight mode kicking in. When faced with a challenge, you can either decline it and run away, or face it head on and do your best. Of course, when faced with the challenge of study abroad, I decided to tackle it headfirst through applications, purchasing a plane ticket, and researching the culture I hoped to become immersed in. It wasn’t until now, the end of my experience, that I can take note of my hubris in my abilities to bear certain stressful situations. It is not simply “fight or flight,” but a long process of determining what you can and can’t do and how to enjoy the process along the way. Additionally, no one likes to see themselves as a villain, so it was difficult to admit that I’d struggled with prejudice against those who didn’t share similar moral and/or political beliefs – something that is all too clear to me after my experience at a school where I seemingly held most of the population in contempt.

 

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Taken four days before departure, this photo shows how excited I was for the season and for my upcoming adventure!

 

Before departure, I considered myself someone who could lead, handle difficult situations, and was as tolerant as anyone could be. I was a confident beacon of multi-culturalism among friends and my community members back home, so I thought an exchange in a developed country I’ve already been to would be easy. I found afterward that I was overly confident – I was not as prone to adaptations or functioning under high ambiguity as I thought. I’ve discovered in myself a person more rigid than I thought I was, adamant in my own personal beliefs and politics, unwilling to bend. However I did also find that I am not nearly as disheveled as I thought I was. I am someone who truly can live independently – managing my time well, conducting research, managing small crises, and resolving problems efficiently.

A lot of the things I thought would be a breeze, like meeting new people and working with different kinds of folks turned out to be my biggest challenge. Affluence made me uncomfortable in this elite environment, and I felt myself as an outsider among organizers and communities in need, like the refugees I got the chance to meet and work with. Having come from a community of need myself, I felt in an awkward position that I belonged to neither group – something I realize might be social culture shock. I was not able to look past certain viewpoints in people I met. In these ways, I disappointed myself. But for me, study abroad represented a prime opportunity to confront some of these weaknesses and move past them in my character. Through this work, I’ve discovered that I can handle mediating arguments and I’ve learned when to walk away from certain topics. I use my time wisely in accordance to what I need and I’ve grown stronger as an independent woman.

I feel as though I’ve improved in several ways that I wanted to before I left – I’ve become more patient, a better listener and observer, and challenged my survival skills. I’ve become even better at asking for and receiving help, and am more willing to confront my problems and look for alternative solutions.

Overall, I see major improvements in my way of living and my personality. This experience has really taught me the need to enjoy situations in which I do not have control and may not necessarily feel constantly comfortable.

 

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Taken on the last day of class I had in Reims, even my friends noticed that my smile is a bit strained, as I was anxious to be done with the semester and return to Germany to see my family before returning home to NY.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

Elizabeth’s Recap of London

 

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

The Sickness

It starts off as a slight pang
A post, by a friend, of a food you miss or a person you’ve not seen in a while
Your heart twitches
And your brain sighs, closing the laptop.
Go outside and do something fun, you tell yourself
The group chat is blowing up, people want to see you
People want to travel
Everyone’s making plans and if you don’t, you’ll be lonely, and stuck with your thoughts this weekend
But you? You don’t really want… any of that…
You want, to get snacks at your bodega
One you know is thousands of miles a way
And you want to meet up with your partner, and your best friends,
Even though you know you’re six hours ahead and you can’t even Skype them, because they’re still sleeping…
You want to wake up to the smell of bacon, which people don’t eat here, especially not in the morning.
You look outside and the French “skyline,” with the gorgeous view of the Cathedral you could not stop talking about months ago,
The tiny houses with gorgeous balconies and windows,
Cloud your memories,
The fond ones you have of the foggy, starless New York skyline,
One which blinds you and wakes you up,
Thrills you.
It starts to dawn on you,
I really miss home.
Ah, there it goes. The realization.
You should’ve never let that thought in your head because now that it’s there, it will plague you
Over the next few weeks, you try your best to keep enjoying the things
That are no longer novel to you
The cheese, the rich flavor of which, you are now used to
The fancy wine that is beginning to taste the same as Barefoot,
Even though you swear you can tell the difference
Now that it has sunk in,
The sickness has you obsessed with what’s better and so wonderful about your home.
You find yourself discussing what to eat,
Realizing, that Chinese takeout a la New York City is not on the menu
And French people don’t make collard greens
And roti, curry goat, oxtail, bake and sardines, and aloo is nowhere to be found,
And your family is light-years away, so you can’t have it.
You miss the sound of your culture’s accent.
That sing-song Trinidadian accent,
It’s so beautiful
But it’s difficult to find any Caribbean people that you can befriend here
No one who knows the joys of being Caribbean
You flashback, to a night you hosted friends,
One guys asks you,
“Is that the Confederate flag?!”
He’s Austrian, he doesn’t know you
But still, you’re shocked
It’s TRINIDAD. It’s not the Confederate flag! How does he not know that???
Relax
You can barely recognize any flags or capital cities or languages,
So you aren’t entitled to your anger
But still, it hurts
You are somewhere where your culture is unknown
Yet you feel it missing in your bones, and it boils in your blood
Thank God I have family across the border in Germany
Seeing them will soothe me, but there’s weeks to go
So thank God I grabbed that hot sauce from my Oma
If I can’t have Caribbean food, or really, good ethnic food,
I’ll make it myself. And I’ll burn my mouth with Trini-style hot sauce
And I’ll act like it’s the spices when tears roll down my face
Because I don’t just miss the cuisine or the cultural smorgasbord that is my group of friends and family back in the States
But, I miss… feeling at home
Sometimes,
The adventures can be too much
Too much fun? Maybe
Too much novelty? Maybe
Too many memories? Maybe
But maybe it’s just, not enough similarity
Maybe being homesick is what I get for pushing myself to the edge of my comfort zone
Maybe this is
The small price to pay
For experiencing the wonders of world travel, exploration of culture, and new experiences
It hurts
Every day
And it’s getting worse,
Especially as my course load piles up and the time approaches for me to make homecoming plans
But instead of being depressed
Instead of responding to the pang in my heart
And the emotional breakdown
I will embrace it
I will live with the ache in my heart,
Longing for my friends, my family, and my home
But,
I will continue to enjoy my time here
Until this place makes me feel as comforted as the thoughts of home do.
This homesickness is just another simple ailment
With clear symptoms which are treatable:
A few doses of newfound friendship,
A steaming cup of French culture,
And a teaspoon of fond memories before bed,
And I’ll be cured.

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

A Day in the Scottish Life

I have a Scottish address.

I wake up under two slanted skylights on the wood-paneled A-frame ceiling above my loft, through which Saint Andrews usually serves me a blue sky and fast-flowing clouds drifting like sea foam toward the ocean, only a minute’s walk east.  A chorus of seagulls and other small birds surf the sea breeze or roost on the narrow chimney tops of these old British homes.  My loft stays fairly warm, but I pull on a robe and slippers before descending the stairs.  Since my rental is part of a much larger structure not originally intended for multiple-occupant residency, the carved wood banister and plush navy carpet puts the square white plaster and brown tweed flooring of my every past apartment to shame.

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There are lots of doors in these old British homes, which I think is designed to better insulate and control the heat, but it also optimizes sound insulation and privacy between various parts of the small structure, as well as providing added fire safety.  So at the foot of the stairs I open a beautiful glass-paned door into the hall, which leads to a little foyer on the right and a bathroom to the left.

Foyers seem to be a common staple to these old homes.  Walking around town, I see a lot of front doors framed in small pop-out rooms extending from the primary structure, usually abundant with windows – like a small green house for people.  I assume that the household packs into these rooms on sunny days to optimize their vitamin D intake.

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A glass foyer.

My mail comes through a slot in the front door.  This may be “a thing” in some parts of the States, but as a Californian it’s completely new to me, and I love it.  Sure it barricades the door and I have to step over it when I come through, but if I’m inside already it’s just added insulation.  Best of all, there’s no need to tromp through the elements for statgecoach-era communication!  Speaking of which, my community is highly communicative.  I’m not absolutely sure if other places I’ve lived are not or if their communications just got lost in the glut of spam mail.  Which is another thing I love about Britain: you can legally refuse spam mail.  When I attempted to do this in the States I was informed that the U.S. post is required to deliver every article even if it’s addressed to “Resident.”  Although I’m opposed to passively endorsing this waste on principle, I was completely powerless to stem the tide.  In Scotland, I can just put up a little sticker on the slot specifying, “Addressed Mail Only, Please” and voila – no more spam!  I was extremely excited to purchase one but since there’s no consumer bread crumb trail established yet for corporations to follow to me, or because they’re just less overbearing in general, I haven’t been compelled to employ it.  Besides, I’m afraid that it might deflect the community mailings, which I quite enjoy.

The bathroom at the other end of the hall is a proper bathroom with full bath as well as toilet, but most Brits will scoff if you refer to a room without a bath as a “bathroom,” since what we would call “half baths” in the States are really just a toilet (and they call them as such, as well as the “Lavatory,” the “Gents” or my personal favorite, “The Loo”).  And if you’re ever abroad and looking for a public toilet, you might try the door labeled “WC” and hope it’s a Wash Closet and not the private carriage of a Wembley Cockfoster or Wimpleton Cumblebutt.  A “Wash Closet” is another name for the Loo, and a common identifier throughout Europe.

Straight across the hall from the bottom stair is another door leading to the kitchen, so I pad across the slate tile floor in my slippers and fire up the electric kettle.  Electric kettles are to British homes what coffee pots are to American ones.  Everyplace I’ve stayed within the UK, be it hotel, b&b or cabin in the wilderness, came equipped at minimum with an electric kettle and tea fixings.  You can acquire a conventional coffee maker, but they don’t come standard since not everyone drinks it.  This is fine, however, since I’ve lately discovered that percolated coffee is kind of crap, thanks to a devious friend who cured my disinterest in the stuff by gifting me with a fancy French Press.  Back home I’d taken to bringing the water to boil in an old fashioned tea pot, but the ordinarily patient Brits drink such copious amounts of hot beverages that they can’t be bothered to wait, so electric kettles it is.  And they do come in handy.  Mine sounds like a miniature jet engine taking off, but I depress the small pedal at its base and then exit the room, closing the door and sealing the bulk of the noise pollution behind me.  I then attend to my morning necessities, and when I return a few minutes later the kettle is silent and the water is steaming.  I scoop some coffee into a cheap press I acquired on Amazon, pour the water and seal, allowing it to steep for a few minutes while I wash the dishes.  My kitchen sink overlooks a very British view, with a tiny courtyard framed by the stucco wall of a neighboring courtyard to the left, the back of a cobblestoned structure across, and my own entry at right, with a wash-line and small tree framed at center.

kitchen window

The kitchen view.

I take my freshly pressed coffee back across the hall into the sitting room, where I enjoy the morning sun as the fog burns off.  In St Andrews, a typical day seems to include all kinds of weather.  It no longer concerns me if it’s suddenly raining when it was sunny ten minutes before, as odds are it will be sunny again before I next remember to look up from my work.  I once experienced three showers interspersed with dazzling sunlight over the course of an hour.

After I’ve had my coffee and caught up on my favorite web comics, I head back to the bathroom and give the pull switch right inside the door a tug.  This turns on the water to the electric shower, though it doesn’t start running until I switch on the heating mechanism, itself.  The heating element is encased in a plastic structure attached to the wall, and as soon as I depress the “on” button the water pours forth and the water is heated internally.  Since the water is heated on demand, there’s no need to keep water in a tank constantly boiling, and there’s no possibility of running out of hot water – a particularly nice feature in any communal living space.  It’s unclear to me why electric showers have never caught on in the States, since they’re quite common in other parts of the world.  My brother had a rather fraught encounter with them in Mexico, and they were standard at every stop of our family trip to Thailand.  Developing nations like these can lead to poor or dilapidated installations (leading to my brother getting a nice morning wake-up shock when he adjusted the temperature on the metal faucet) but the strict regulations in Britain rigidly separate the weak current from coming into contact with anything conductive, and a quick google search returned no alarming statistics related to shower incidents.

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The electric shower.

When it comes to my favorite features of the British home, however, radiators may have the edge: these are metal heaters warmed by steam, and typically placed throughout the house; my small apartment has a total of 7: one in the foyer, the hallway, the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedroom, and two in the sitting room.  Towel bars are strategically placed directly above them in the kitchen and loo, so that wet towels have been merely a fading memory while I’ve lived here.  I can control the temperature of the radiators via the central control station in the kitchen, or adjust each one individually by the knob at its base.  The knobs each have a dial reading snowflake to fan; dials are typically set to the snowflake position when Scotlanders are away from home, so that a minimal amount of heat is maintained to keep pipes from freezing.  The opposite end of the spectrum indicates that the valve is fully opened for maximum heat.  I keep all but the radiator in the loft on max, and then manage the actual temperature of each simultaneously through the central heating system – a wall installation with a temperature dial and three functions: On, Off, and Timer.  The timer allows me to have the radiators come on before I get up in the morning, turn themselves off when I’m usually out of the house, and take the chill off again before I get home.  I initially thought this would be an incredibly useful feature, but since I get around mostly by walking, now, I tend to be a self-fueling furnace myself.  (Really cuts down on the heating bills.)  Switched on, the radiators pump heat at just the right temperature to rest your bum against without burning; also known as cat-magnet temperature; a fact which British cats exploit as you’d expect.

cat radiator

I dry off with my warm-and-toasty towel, slip into a polyester robe and slippers, and return to the kitchen. One of the hardships of transitioning to a new culture is adjusting to the different groceries available.  Somewhat surprisingly, differences persist even within the global market; one of the primary jobs of the controversial European Union, for example, is to make import goods more difficult than local ones to acquire.  Many brands available in the U.S. are branded differently in the U.K., making them difficult to search for or recognize on a shelf, but other more localized brands aren’t imported at all.  In my case, Dennisons canned chilli beans and Hickory Farm’s summer sausage were cornerstones of my diet that suddenly became unavailable.  But rather than dwelling on the inaccessible, it’s a good opportunity to discover similar delights that are exclusive to the host culture, so that you are primed to enjoy that same crushing state of dietary withdrawal in the reverse!  There can be no return to innocence from having known Scotch eggs (boiled eggs baked in breaded meat), cumberland (deliciously spiced) sausages, pasties (like commercial Hot Pockets but better), sausage rolls, macaroni pies (just as they sound), mulled (spiced) wine, sticky toffee pudding (ginger cake with hot toffee sauce), shortbread, and buttered CRUMPETS (to which english muffins are an inferior mongrel cousin, and no substitute).

crumpets with egg and jam

Crumpets with egg and jam.

Another delight of renting in the UK is that even budget apartments often come equipped with a dishwasher and clothes washer.  Some clothes washers even double as dryers (they flip on a switch) but most include a traditional clothesline for the purpose.  Due to space restrictions, the compact machines are generally installed in the kitchen or bathroom, and are often completely camouflaged among the cabinets.  I pull a load of clean clothes from the washer under my kitchen counter.  It’s too cold outside, yet, to take advantage of the clothes line, so I attire the household radiators in my various garments.  The house soon smells of clean laundary.  Within the hour I’ll be able to encase myself in a preheated shirt, socks and trousers (don’t call them pants in Britain unless you mean to have your audience imagining your underpants!).

laundry machine 2laundry machine 1

These old homes don’t come preinstalled with as many outlets as modern ones, but I’ve managed this with the use of powerstrips.  Cable internet also doesn’t seem to be common here, but my Broadband DHL gets about 40Mbps, which is as much as I ever got out of Comcast.  It’s also less expensive: I rent the phone line for £18.99 and pay £10.00 for Unlimited data, which comes to a monthly bill of about $37.50 USD.  I’m going to miss this when I leave.

I pop online now to order some take away (delivery or take-out for those of us from the States).  Websites like OrderTakeaway.co.uk and just-eat.co.uk make this absurdly easy.  I locate my venue in their directory and make my selections from the online menu. At checkout, I enjoy the convenience of another quirk of British life: residence-specific postal codes!  I don’t know how this works, but every time I need to fill in my postal address, web forms always start by asking for my postal code.  I plug in my post-code, which is a 7-character alphanumeric string, and upon entering that information, the webpage propogates the remainder of my address, right down to the name of the residence.  Since I’m in a complex, it only asks me to confirm my house number, which I select from a drop down list of my nearest neighbors.  Now if only this would catch on in the States.  I suppose there just aren’t enough numbers…

Deliveroo

Deliveroo- a popular food delivery service.

I select to pay by cash or card and within the hour there’s a knock at my door.  The take away service outsources the delivery to another company called Deliveroo.  What’s interesting is that these guys usually arrive by bicycle or moped, so I can only guess that the company employs staff in every neighborhood to maintain the efficiency I’ve observed.  The delivery person hands over my order with a brief exchange of pleasantries and departs, without waiting for a tip.  Since employers are required to pay a living wage without factoring in gratuity, tips are not expected.  The minimum wage in Scotland is about $9.30 USD, beating out the federal minimum in the US by over $2.00, even though cost of living is generally lower here.  The minimum wage hasn’t been raised in the States since 2009, whereas in Britain it’s gone up every year in the past decade.  What’s interesting about the absence of tipping culture is that servers aren’t obligated to be nice to customers in the hopes of netting a little extra.  The downside is that service doesn’t always come with a smile, but the upside is that when it does it’s typically genuine.  My Deliveroo drivers always seem pretty happy with their lot in life which, in my view, makes the interaction feel less exploitative and more positive all around.

I could really get used to this life.

at end of article

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Filed under Jordan in Scotland, Western Europe

Time Travel

Time is a weird concept, especially when studying abroad. On my computer screen, I keep track of three different time zones: One for my parents (-8hr), for my friends back in the States (-5hr), and of course, one for London (0hr). Meetings and phone calls are usually scheduled at extremes – early in the morning or late at night. When I call my parents, I am often a day ahead, well into my daily activities. Groggily, they’ll tell me that they just woke up.

 

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A screenshot of my computer screen.

 

In addition to the thousands of miles of ocean that separates the United States from the United Kingdom, the time differences seem to enhance the obvious distance between the two. While I sleep, things are happening in America. They always are. Yet, rather than being exposed to a constant stream of updates and fragmented soundbites, I hear about things long after they have already happened. The information I receive is more complete and the time that I spend taking everything else in is neatly condensed into one or two articles or a podcast recapping everything that has happened.

 

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Big Ben

 

Although it is difficult to keep track of everything while abroad, the delay that these time differences have created are also a welcomed breath of fresh air. In a way, it has given me the opportunity to escape the narrow fixation that, as Americans, we often have on local news. Instead, what is happening in the United States only encompasses a fraction of what I pay attention to. Globally, the world is changing, things are happening, and time is passing. Yet, I find that being in London – a few hours ahead of the place that used to make up my world, has allowed me to take in the present while simultaneously broadening the way in which I think about international affairs. Although my semester is coming to an end, I find myself thankful for Big Ben and the time that I’ve spent learning about the world based on a different clock.

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

The Champagne Lifestyle: A Regional Privilege

In my last post, I wrote about how food is a major part of French culture, and how exploring food has pushed me to explore the culture and the meaning of French life. One important aspect I thought I should’ve included in that post is wine. While it’s included in the spectrum of food and drink, I realized that wine as an entity deserves a whole separate post to celebrate its meaning, varieties, and traditions in French culture. Then I thought, if the goal of my blogging is to educate, enlighten, and encourage intercultural learning and studying abroad, I thought it might be nice to showcase an important part of my own personal exploration of this aspect of French culture. And for me, this isn’t wine, which is huge all over the world and not always specific to France… this is champagne.

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I live in Reims, a small city at the epicenter of the Champagne-Ardenne region. While wine is native to all parts of France, with wine vineyards and wine makers spanning all over the country and even the world, true champagne has a unique history and is a product and luxury based solely in the Champagne-Ardenne region. Now I know what some of you might be thinking. Some of you might want to refute my statement. After all, prosecco, the Italian sparkling wine, is basically the same thing and (obviously) isn’t from France… and what about sec, Germany and Austria’s own sparkling wine product? And again, what about the sparkling wine products in the USA, some of which are marked as “champagne” but made in the US? Well, champagne’s exclusivity to the region has everything to do with its history in France, and the creation of a luxury market solely for marketing purposes that has given France an immense spotlight in culture and celebration. As a matter of fact, in 2006 the champagne industry successfully protected its name by outlawing the use of the word “champagne” on any other product’s marketing or labeling – unless it was grandfathered in (as are certain products in the US). Products like perfume and yogurt have been sued and taken off the market for advertising its products to have the smell or even taste of champagne, so one can imagine how important the image is to those keeping the champagne traditional alive and well today.

 

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On a champagne tour with a friend… I’ll never turn down the offer to try fancy champagne!

 

Since the 17th century, the Champagne region has been home to producers of fine-quality champagne. Its international status as a fine, high-level celebration drink didn’t take off until the 1950s, so how did champagne managed to thrive in French culture for almost 300 years before that, stemming only from this regional area of France? Well, champagne’s taste, its essence, and its distinction from the tastes of the only once-fermented wine products has allowed it to hold a defined position on the French palette and in its culture. Additionally, the business associations formed by the grandes maisons (the large houses) of champagne and the vignerons (growers) has allowed the mass production of champagne to sustain throughout history, despite battling epidemics including phylloxera of the 1860s (which nearly destroyed France’s grape industry), economic recessions, agriculture depressions, and many more.

 

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One of the larger champagne houses in the region, the Taittinger house, is continuously putting wonderful works of art on its bottles, ad campaigns, and sometimes its caves.

 

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Another grande maison, Pommery, is well-known for having modern art installments updated yearly in its ancient caves. This is one way the current owner & president showcases their diverse interests in cultures other than that revolving around champagne.

 

What makes champagne unique are the interesting terroirs of the French land (its soil, distinctive flavor, and minerals), and the rich history of the product which lies specifically within the region. My exploration of the culture so far has come from visits to champagne houses (so far Pommery and Taittinger), and a marketing course I’m taking, Luxe Marketing: Champagne & Wine. Through examining its making processes (which includes ancient techniques that to this day requires manual labor and emphasizes traditional methodology) to the way it is marketed (to whom, by whom, how much is allowed by export, what people are targeted to drink champagne and for what purpose) we can see that champagne has made a name for itself that isn’t soon to shift.

 

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Descending into the caves of Pommery, we got a chance to see where and how their famous Brut champagne is made. Judging from the popularity of the champagne tours I’ve been on, this industry certainly isn’t dying… international visitors consistently show up to learn about this fascinating product and its wonderful traditions.

 

A significant part of my experience in Reims has been based around champagne. My friends and I have gathered to sip champagne, and I was introduced to the city by visiting the Pommery champagne house (a few days after my first lovely meal at Le Gaulois). Now my friends and I sip cheap (but still delicious) champagne in the spring air, as we all talk and laugh about our classes and tell stories about home. I bring bottles to friends as a thank you for hosting me, and have already sent some home as presents for friends and family. Before, I had never really drank champagne other than trying it once or twice on New Years. But now, drinking champagne makes me feel like I’m truly experiencing the region I live in, and getting to know an intimate and historical part of this area. While I love Paris and sometimes pine for the big city life I left behind in NYC, my experience in the Champagne region has allowed me to experience the beauty and impact of nature in the things we consume. It has given me a reason to delve deeper into France’s rich culinary history, and for that, I’ll say cheers!

 

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Sipping champagne at the end of a tour with some close friends. Cheers!

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Gilman Scholar Elizabeth’s Favorite Things About London

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