Housing Hiccups & the Scottish Rental Market

Here’s the thing about defeat: it doesn’t exist until you’re dead.  (Or if you’re a video game character, not even then.)  Defeat is just a trial leading to an error that informs you what not to do next time, for as many next times as you need until you strike upon a winning combination.  So here’s a little story of a recent pothole in the road of life, and how that’s panning out for me now.

I never intended to commit myself to the rabbit hole of student housing again.  Before I applied, I inquired with the department as to whether it would be suitable for an adult re-entry student with certain (apparently special) needs.  They were not forthcoming with information, either on the accommodations themselves or the pursuit of alternatives.  Through my own research I determined that renting privately would be impossible for a person of my means without being present in the target continent, given silly in-person restrictions like proving my corporeal existence.  So I decided to take shelter at the university as a starting point, hoping not to begin my Scottish residency on a cobble-stoned curbside.  This logic, it turned out, was perfectly reasonable and utterly impotent.  The university department of housing is a for-profit operation designed to fill as many rooms as possible with as many foreign students as possible (tuition is free to Scottish residents) and then to point to the dreaded Terms of Service (TOS) as proof of their ownership should you be sideswiped by this data.  That little note in the body of the email about a cancellation period, it turns out, refers to a 7 day window that begins as soon as you accept the offer from the safety of your home continent, several months prior to arrival.  The fallout of this is that you are locked into a living arrangement – year long, in my case – sight unseen and situation unknown.  I discovered all of this when I announced my departure within the hour of my arrival and became embroiled in a protracted battle to gain access to anyone with the authority to do better than throw their hands up and deny any authority.  This was my happy introduction to the town, the country, and the university I’d sought after for years.  It was a hostile welcome, particularly to a ragged wanderer who’d just jettisoned all manner of security, familiarity, and home comforts.

 

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The shoebox.

 

The appointed Rational Decision Maker of the housing department, as it happens, was heavily fortified behind a boss dungeon of detours and misdirections.  Repeated assurances that I would be contacted went unfulfilled for weeks until finally I was retroactively informed that a representative had conversed with me without ever revealing his relation to the department.  Needless to say, I did not avail the anonymous man as to my housing concerns.  The well-oiled engine of the adult world is missing some pivotal screws! I worked meanwhile with a Student Advocate at the Student Union to assess my tenant rights and legal footing, and by the end of a month I at last managed to jam my foot in the door of the Wizard’s palace and communicate my appeal to the man behind the mask.  I had to trot out some highly personal information to make any headway against the TOS, but in the end I emerged victorious.  Score one for the little guy.  Literally.

And all of this is merely a preamble to the main point, which is this: I have leveled up, and the rewards are sweeter for the struggle overcome in obtaining them.  I have successfully navigated the Scottish housing market and secured shelter for myself in a foreign land.  I have repelled the dragons, defied the odds, and put down roots – and I go forward with the knowledge that these intimidating obstacles are conquerable.

Once free of my TOS tethers, I began my search for a new home at the UK’s Craiglist equivalent: Gumtree.  I soon had countless tabs open to various rental aggregate and agency’s sites.  In retrospect, for a small town like St. Andrews it may have been easier to simply pop in at the agencies in person, but I was under the impression from prior experience that it was better to rent from landlords directly, where possible.  This turned out to be a less accessible option, as the strict Scottish rental regulations encourage most private citizens to outsource that fuss and bother to the professionals.

In Scotland you don’t rent so much as “let,” although I have heard the terms used interchangeably.  (Similarly, an apartment is more commonly called a “flat”, though it can be called both.  I am not sure if there are nuanced differences to when the terms are appropriately employed.)  So most homeowners employ a “letting agent” who markets the rental and manages the considerable bureaucracy.  On a positive note, the regulations appear to be designed as much for the tenant’s protection as for the lettors and landlord.  While this is ostensibly the case in the States, it is more in evidence here by certain quirks of the Scottish system, such that deposits are held by an unbiased third party organization established specifically for the purpose of protecting rights and mitigating disputes.  This third party organization also oversees the walk-through assessment of the property before and after the tenancy.

One of the first things I discovered when I began my search was that many lettors state point-blank that they do not let to homewreckers, er, students.  Of course, the single-occupancy properties I was looking at appeal exclusively to singles and young persons of which students make up a majority, so many lettors preempted these applicants by stipulating “professionals and grad students only.”  This was particularly confounding to me because as a 30-something re-entry student I am neither a graduate nor a typical undergrad, and as a homebody I maintain my abode in fairly high standing.  Furthermore, although not presently employed I have ample professional experience, both freelance and office-based.  So I determined to emphasize my professional experience and minimize my student status when promoting myself to prospective lettors:

“Hello, I’m calling about the flat at 321 Northsouthwest Humperdink?”
“Are you a student or fully employed?”
“Um, yes.”

After a brief phone interview I was greenlighted for a viewing, so I set out in my least outrageous sweater pulled over a collared shirt, trying my best to look tweedish and teacherly.  All went smoothly until the agent responded to my inquiry about property tax.  “Oh, undergraduates are exempt, actually.  Are you an undergraduate?”
“Why, yes, I am!
Woops. Gratefully it was not held against me, though the particular property I was looking at was not specifically sacrificed at the alter of “student lets.”

Proceeding with the application process, the agent took my email and sent me a list of documents they would require.  These included landlord, employer and character references, along with proof of income and enrollment status.  It turned out to be fortuitous that the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, since a financial aid document was the only proof of income I currently had.  I returned these things by email while reciting a silent mantra of thanks to whatever managerial spirit had seen to sparing the redundant requirement of a formal application.  There was a brief period of uncertainty when they inquired if I could provide local references and I cringingly confirmed that I could not.  To compensate for this deficit, I sent along some official letters of reference from former employers and waited on tinterhooks for a week or so, at which point an angelic choir of shoulder angels accompanied the happy announcement of my approval.

 

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furnished lets

 

Contrary to the informality of the application process, the walkthrough itself was considerably more formal than those I’ve undergone in the States.  When the woman from the third party organization met with me, she had already been through the property once with a fine tooth comb.  She then gave me a tour while pointing out the issues she had already found and documented.  I later received a copy of this comprehensive report, including photographs and notations on the condition of all aspects of the home, and was given a week from the time I moved in to submit corrections or additions.

One of the coolest discoveries I’ve made about renting in the UK is that it’s not at all uncommon to find a furnished rental.  There’s an option in every search filter for furnished housing, and no shortage of listings that meet this handy distinction.  Thanks to this, I was able to rent privately without having to worry about buying everything I would need for the home – a condition which would have either left me destitute or profoundly spartan.  So it was that my new home came with a double bed, bedding, couch, chairs, a television, and a fully equipped kitchen.  There was even some modest decor, which I was told I could put into storage if so desired.  Most of it is still scattered about the place, though, since clutter makes a home.  But I’ve also made my own contribution, of course, and at last have my revenge for the scrupulously decor-resistant dorm walls!

 

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decor 1

 

Prior to my departure from student housing, I had been warned that private letting in St. Andrews would be difficult and expensive.  Perhaps because I was looking after most of my fellow students had already settled in, I was fortunate to find a fair number of choices.  I also discovered that for a short bus ride out of town I could find housing for half the price of what it went for in St. Andrews.  I ended up taking a place within a 15 minute walk to the school – half the distance of the student apartments – and less than a 5 minute walk to the beach, for less than the cost of university accommodation.  Adding in private utilities, it came to about the same.  Suffice to say I was reasonably satisfied with the switch.

From start to finish, my experience renting in St Andrews was dramatically different than my last experience in the States.  Compared to St. Andrews, my home university has a student body of roughly 40,000 in a city with a population of over 100,000 in the excessively popular Bay Area of California, one of the most populous states in the nation.  Listed rentals are inundated with applicants within minutes, and the extremity of demand has prices skyrocketing and landlords clamoring to convert ANY unused space into an income source.  Most of what I looked at there was four white walls with a bed and a hotplate, some no bigger than a large closet.  They made me claustrophobic, and I have a history of living in trailers.  For all of that, the minimum monthly cost was still well over a thousand.  Due to this, I ended up commuting to school from a friend’s place about two hours north for the first four months of my university career, until at last I landed a little apartment an hour closer.  Even then, they said they had received hundreds of applicants within an hour of posting, and I was only fortunate enough to secure it by virtue of arriving at the open house early and with a binder of references.  So I just have to laugh when I hear people say that St. Andrews is a hard place to rent in.

Welcome home, wanderer.  I am living in Scotland!

 

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Filed under Jordan in Scotland, Western Europe

Everything Is Going to Be Alright

          The world is our oyster. The correspondents on this site who have shared tales from Ghana, South Korea, England, Scotland, and France are only a small sample of the more than 850 Gilman Scholars who are having life-changing experiences all over the globe. While we chose our host countries for a variety of reasons, one common draw was the challenge and adventure of navigating a foreign culture far from home.

        With that opportunity comes risk. Setbacks are an inevitable part of any journey. Some can be anticipated, others take us by surprise, but all can be overcome with the right attitude. That’s what I’ve learned these last three weeks here in New Zealand.

        One difficulty I saw coming was the different testing and grading style of a big university compared to that of a small liberal arts college. At Pomona College, my professors know me personally. They know I don’t cheat, and when I submit work that is incorrect, they can compare my answers to what they know about me as a student to figure out exactly where I went wrong. At University of Canterbury (UC), my Physics 101 professor can’t possibly learn the names of all 700 students in my class, much less trust them on a test. Similarly, graders faced with a foot-tall stack of Statistics 101 assignments don’t have time to dissect strange-looking answers.

        I was confident going into my first Physics 101 test. After studying for seven hours, I aced the online practice test with time to spare. I had so strong a memory for the material that I didn’t even bother with the reference sheet I was allowed. Instead of filling the sheet with important equations, I thought it would be funny if I made a colorful crayon drawing of a boy flying a kite. So, that’s what I did.

 

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My Physics 101 professor allowed each student to bring a reference sheet to the first test. He said I could put anything I wanted on it. This is what I chose!

 

        I got a four out of ten on the test, not for lack of a serious cheat sheet, but because the strict testing procedures made me nervous. I had to show my ID and calculator at the door, leave all my belongings at the front of the room, then sit with empty desks on both sides of me to discourage cheating. Once told to do so, I opened the booklet and had exactly one hour to finish the machine-graded, multiple-choice test.

        As soon as I hit one small stumbling block, I panicked! I remembered the formulas, but I couldn’t think clearly enough to work the problems through from start to finish. It made me miss Pomona’s casual, take-your-time approach to testing. Fortunately, it was only worth a small portion of my final grade. I’ll be ready next time.

        My first Statistics 101 assignment was a similar story. I submitted it assuming I’d get an A. Despite doing all my calculations correctly, I got only half credit because I didn’t display my data in the correct format. For example, I lost points on one of my graphs because the values on its y-axis were expressed as absolute values instead of percent values. It seemed so nit-picky, but that’s the attention to detail that’s needed here, and now I know. For my next assignment, I’ll print it out in advance and ask for feedback before I turn it in. Problem solved!

        If only all problems were so straightforward….

        My girlfriend and I had been dating for two years. We planned to marry each other someday. This month, she broke up with me.

        Long distance was nothing new for us. That’s how we had spent most of our relationship. But once she started graduate school last semester, she started to make new friends and see new career opportunities. Without either of us realizing it, she started to drift away from me. At some point, our long-distance relationship stopped being a buoy for her. It became an anchor. She didn’t want to put her life on hold for a future with me that was still two years away, so she cut the rope. I don’t blame her.

        I had a good cry the night she broke the news to me, but she said she did it for both of us and I understand that now. The longer we had been together, the more reclusive I had become. It’s hard to be present when half your heart is hundreds of miles away. Instead of engaging with those around me, I used to busy myself with solitary pursuits like reading and video games. It got to the point that I hardly had a social life outside my girlfriend. I made little effort to stay in touch with old friends, and no effort to make new ones. Not anymore!

        I had an epiphany recently that I’m afraid of putting myself in situations where I must compete for peoples’ attention. So, what am I doing now? Exactly that. I’m joining clubs left and right, chatting up strangers, making new friends, and accepting invitations I normally would have turned down. Basically, I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone and seeing what happens. I don’t pretend to know what I’m doing, but at least I’m doing something, and it seems to be paying off.

        So far this month, I’ve joined six student clubs and attended 13 meetings. I’m cycling with UC Bike Club, speaking with UC Spanish Club, tasting with UC Wine Club, grooving with Defy Dance, and doing community service with the Student Volunteer Army. Through these activities, I’ve made several friends who I never would have met otherwise. I’m also growing closer to my flatmates, who continue to impress me with their friendliness and consideration. Things are looking up.

 

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The flatmates celebrate Jasper’s 35th birthday! From left to right: Marius, me, Mathew, Calvin, and Jasper.

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My first ride with UC Bike Club.

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Last weekend I went camping with the Student Volunteer Army. My group did trail maintenance. Others improved the campground by doing yardwork and home-improvement projects. The camp is owned by a charitable trust that subsidizes camping trips for the disabled.

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After the Student Volunteer Army was finished working for the day, we got to relax at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools & Spa, a waterpark that is naturally heated by magma near the Earth’s surface. It was of special interest to me because one of my geology classes this semester focuses on geothermal energy!

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The Avon River winds its way through Hagley Park, a 400-acre park right next to downtown Christchurch.

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It’s been six years since the deadly earthquakes hit Christchurch, but ruins are still a common sight downtown.

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Last month the city unveiled a memorial to commemorate the 185 people killed in the earthquakes.

 

         I’ll end with an update on my cycling, and mention one ride that perfectly sums up my experience these last three weeks.

        After weeks of searching, I finally pulled the trigger on a 2014 Trek 1.1 road bike that was listed online. My patience paid off. Although it’s three years old, it hadn’t been ridden at all before I bought it, so I basically got a brand-new bike for a 40% discount! In my three weeks of ownership, I’ve ridden 250 miles all over the city.

 

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I finally bought a bicycle! This is Trek’s entry-level road bike. It’s three years old, but it looks and rides like new. The previous owner hardly ever used it.

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Looking northeast down onto the beach community of Sumner, seven miles from downtown Christchurch.

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My longest ride so far was a 38 mile round trip to the beach at New Brighton. Little did I know, the national Surf Lifesaving Championships were going on that day! I joined the hundreds of spectators on Christchurch Pier who were watching the kayak and rowboat races.

 

        My most memorable ride was on a Wednesday night. It started as the sun was setting and continued past dark. So many things could have gone horribly wrong, but didn’t. I won’t list all the near misses here, I’ll just share the one that best describes my mood right now.

        I was on my way home riding through downtown when I became distracted by a giant neon sign outside the Christchurch Art Gallery. In colorful, all-capital letters, it proclaimed EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE ALRIGHT. That’s when the front wheel of my bike slotted into a streetcar track, flinging me sideways. (For added irony, this happed right in front of a street sign warning cyclists of this very hazard!) I fell, but I got up again. The bike was undamaged, I was uninjured, and I have a feeling that everything is going to be alright.

 

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This sign would have been helpful if I had seen it in time.

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Instead of heeding the warning of the sign in the previous photo, I was distracted by this bigger and brighter one across the street. I fell hard, flat on my side! Thankfully, my bike and I suffered only minor scratches.

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Filed under Oceania, Trevor in New Zealand

How I Learned to Search for Opportunities

My parents were immigrants. Although they seemed to thrive in ambiguous situations, I knew how hard they worked. From them, I learned how to ride a bike, how to hold my little brother when he first came home from the hospital, and how to live between the fringes of two worlds. My parents never pretended to have all of the answers. However, they knew that if they couldn’t teach me, there was always a library, a teacher, or an English-Spanish dictionary that could. Tirelessly, they made sure that my brother and I could call America home.

 

2.1

Early bike rides.

 

In the midst of the internet boom, my dad lugged a bulky computer and eagerly, to my mother’s dismay, set it up on the kitchen table. Although my parents had shown me what determination looked like, they had the foresight to invest in a boxy piece of technology that would give us access to a world that they did not fully understand.

After school, I would spend hours on this computer. Initially, I would tinker with games like Solitaire and Pinball, beloved classics to anyone born in the mid ’90s. However, it wasn’t long before it became the tool my parents intended it to be. In a way that I hadn’t been able to before, I was able to learn about the culture that my parents had left behind, translate my homework and essays into a language that they could understand, and I began to teach myself things beyond what I was able to learn in the classroom.

However, when immigration laws eventually forced my parents to return to Mexico, I found myself in a situation that challenged everything that I had known to be true. At fifteen, I lost the guidance that my family had provided me and felt defeated by what I had always known to be the land of opportunity. Yet, it was my family’s sacrifices that inspired me to stay in the U.S. without them and it was their confidence in my ability to continue finding opportunities that helped me believe that it was possible.

It has been more than 7 years since I last lived with my parents. Since then, I have constantly searched for ways to repay everything that my family and the community that helped raised me has done for me. In high school, I read forums online – researching the best universities and what it would take for me to be able to fund them. I read blogs and looked at how others pursued their ambitions, often lingering on our shared experiences. For me, the biggest risk had been living in the U.S. without stable housing or a family to come home to. After that, it seemed logical to take every opportunity that I crossed paths with. In my mind, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

It would be naïve to credit grit as the sole factor for many of the opportunities that I have been able to take advantage of. Statistically speaking, students in situations like mine rarely complete high school and in some of the darkest moments, college seemed unattainable. However, it was thanks to the adversity of these experiences that I had the confidence to take on risks even when I felt unsure or unqualified. Time and time again, I found myself able to dismiss rejections and pursue alternatives. In many ways, keeping an open mind helped me apply to schools like the University of Pennsylvania and apply to programs like the Gilman Scholarship.

 

2.2

Exploring London.

 

 

Today, I take for granted how easy it is to look up directions on my phone and explore a place like London, one of the most global cities in the world. Yet, I can’t help but think of a younger version of myself sitting wide eyed in front of an old computer. Captivated by that clunky monitor, I was unaware that I would one day get to explore the world that my parents had been so eager for me to see.

 

2.3

On the way to the Tate Modern for class.

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe

Tenge Emmanuel

4

 

My time here in Ghana has brought some truly memorable life experiences, and with this came some equally astounding individuals whom I have had the pleasure of getting to know. One of these is someone who I consider a good friend, and who constantly blows me away with his dedication to school, family, and extra-curricular activities. His name is Tenge Emmanuel, or Emma for short.

Emma is a level 400 senior at the University of Ghana where he is currently studying business administration and has a rather heavy load in terms of outside activities. He works actively with USAC (University Studies Abroad Consortium), which is how I have come to know him so well. His family resides in the neighboring country of Togo, and I along with other USAC students had the chance to visit his family there.

 

4.1

Emma and I in Lome, the capital of Togo, during a weekend visit to the country. Here we are just about to go and see the national museum featuring the history of Togo. Did I mention this country’s official language is French? And that Emma can not only speak French, English, and Twi, but about four other local dialects as well?

Q + A with Emma
What was your education like growing up?
Having studied business at Ntruboman Senior High School and completed as the overall best student in the year 2013, I became the first student from my high school to gain admission into the University of Ghana. This academic success presented itself with great financial need which my family had no capacity to fulfill. Fortunately, Educational Pathways International (EPI) came to my aid and offered me a full scholarship for my four years of undergrad studies.

What’s life like for you at the university?
As someone who has in general attended less endowed schools, I have made it a point to organize and participate with my colleagues in voluntary teachings to basic schools in less fortunate communities within the Volta Region to combat the declining educational standards. Besides this, I enjoy volunteering with USAC. I am now in my final year here at the University, so I look forward to what the future holds.

What are your goals and plans for the future?
I aspire to be a chartered accountant and as a result I am preparing to start writing the professional accounting examinations with the Institute of Chartered Accounts, Ghana in November this year. As a business-minded person, I hope to set up my company someday and contribute to educate financially burdened students. It is my dream to obtain my postgraduate degree in finance/economics from a college outside of Sub Sahara Africa to gain further experience and exposure to different types of businesses. I then hope to implement these systems here in Ghana.

4.2

This photo was taken at Mole National Park in Ghana with my two good friends Claire and Emma. We woke up early in the morning to catch a cool safari walk in hopes of seeing some animals. In the background there’s an elephant walking away!

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Filed under Africa, Coryl in Ghana

French Food and Adapting to Culture: A Rollercoaster Experience

 “The meaning of food is an exploration of culture through food. What we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication that is rich with meaning.” (PBS, The Meaning of Food, 2005)

One of the first blog posts I wrote during this experience shared that I had many preconceptions about France, its people, and its culture. I feared an ability to relate to my host country and wondered whether I’d ever assimilate. Turns out, a major foundation of French culture includes food, one of my favorite topics and parts of exploring different cultures! After all, “the meaning of food is an exploration of culture through food.”  While I had heard a lot about popular French foods like escargot (snails), des cuisses de grenouille (frog legs), and foie gras (fattened goose liver), these seemed to repulse me. I was quite excited to come and explore the wide variety of French wine and cheese, two of its most famed cultural staples. Before studying abroad, French food seemed to be just alright – not perfect, but not horrible, so I have to say how surprised I am that I feel much differently now.

 

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One of my favorite things in France is café culture. I stopped in Paris during my sightseeing to enjoy this beautiful lunch of a chevre chaud (warm goat cheese) salad.

 

My first night in Reims, I went out for the meal that would set up my obsession with exploring French cuisine. I ate at a café called Le Gaulois, located in the city center. My first meal was a linguine pasta with duck, in a rich creamy peanut sauce. My friend Nick insisted I indulge in a glass of champagne from the region, its dryness perfectly complementing the rich sauce of the duck. For dessert, we shared chocolate mousse and ice cream with traditional cookies, and I made it my goal then and there to try as much French cuisine as I could. Nick and his mother ordered foie gras and chevre, two specialties they had me try then and there. Although foie gras wasn’t a big deal to me, it wasn’t gross like I expected. The chevre (goat cheese, this time prepared warm with honey) was immaculate. I began to understand why UNESCO protects French food under world heritage – it is an experience of sorts that everyone should have if they travel to France.

 

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Amazing appetizers from Le Café Gaulois in Place d’Erlon. On the left, we have cooked foie gras on a bed of toast and lettuce, drenched in sweet and salty honey-balsamic sauce. On the right, we have snails (!) in an herb sauce with a regional name.

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Magret canard, which is a style of duck, in a very delicious savory sauce with cooked black peppercorns and pasta on the side. (Le Café Gaulois)

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One of my favorite meals: a salad with chevre chaud (warm goat cheese). I love this particular restaurant because of its elaborate salads. This one includes jambon pays (the country’s shredded ham) and potatoes lightly fried. (Le Café Gaulois)

 

It’s been exactly two months and 11 days since that first meal, and since then I’ve propelled myself into French food culture. Despite my homesickness for New York City and all the available cuisines there, I’ve found it comforting to adapt to French culture via food. Bakeries are a huge deal here, and the freshness of the bread and pastries makes my mornings and/or lunches. Even the “fast food” options here (which consist of Arab kebabs and European pizza among other things) have special tastes that I feel I will remember when I go back home.

 

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From Hanny Kebab, a staple in my life here since my first week. Kebabs traditionally include meat, red onions, tomatoes, lettuce, and sauces of your choice. My favorite is sauce blanche (white sauce).

 

On the nights where I decide to splurge and explore the city as well as some restaurants, I like to eat lavish meals complete with dessert and drinks to try new things. Through this exploration, I’ve developed a serious affinity towards stinky cheeses, weirdly prepared meats like tartare (completely raw meat!), and large salads with French lardon and chevre.

 

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Beef tartare served with dried fungus (mushrooms) and a savory cream and pepper sauce.

 

The majority of my new friends here are fellow exchange students, and many of them share similar sentiments as me. Most of us terribly miss our lives back home, and for us, we remember our foods back home as staples of our culture. However, all of us have been rather excited to explore French cuisine and make a steady effort to both cook dishes that mean something to us back home as well as participate in French food culture. In order to do so, some of my close friends and I have formed a dinner group, something I would sincerely recommend to other students studying abroad. In our group of friends, we have a variety of nationalities present. We are American (Northern, Midwest, and Southern), Mexican, German, New Zealanders, and Lebanese, just to name a few. Every week we dine together at someone’s home, and one of us makes a cuisine of their culture to share with the others. Besides this, we’ve held “French” nights where we gather to eat baguettes and cheese, or go out to explore the local food. These meetings have become quintessential.

 

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Photo taken in my apartment, when my friends and I gathered after our morning classes to make an elaborate brunch. We combined yummy French foods like baguettes and comte with and avocado spread and lightly fried eggs.

 

 

To give some more insight on the positives and negatives of adapting to a culture through food and drink, I’ve asked some of my friends to describe their experiences with French food and its culture. My friend Anna, like me, loves the bakeries. She says, “their pastries and baguettes are the best. No comparison to what I have had in New York.” Very often, Anna and I go grocery shopping together. She’s discovered that “the groceries (except for meat) are much cheaper.” When asked to comment on specifics, she said that meat here is super expensive but I am content with this because I would much rather have responsibly grown expensive meat than what we have in the United States.” Additionally, “most of the groceries here are also more fresh than the U.S.” Because Anna and I have a Caribbean background, there are some things that we can agree on that the French could do better to adapt to. Maybe this is because we are from NYC, one of the most diverse places in the world, but Anna noted that “the French have no sense of diverse food. What they believe to be diverse are cultural stereotypes,” something that we’ve seen a bit in even our own friends group. We made a joke that on the night our friend from Mexico City was to host dinner, everyone expected tacos for ‘Taco Tuesday,’ even though what she (and our other Mexican friends) made was impressive and delicious, to say the least. Anna went on to discuss seasoning, expressing sincere happiness that her mother remembered to pack her Dominican sázon, which she could not find here. On the overall experience, she writes that it is “difficult being accustomed to having different cultural experiences with food.” Anna and I are very similar as New Yorkers having to adapt to French tastes and culture, but the respect for the food system in France is immense from both of us.

 

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Some of my and Anna’s favorite pastries from a bakery near our school. The cake pictured above is a lovely creamy and flaky cake, served with almonds and powdered sugar on top. The two little tarlettes are lemon meringue and fruit (left to right). We hope to continue spoiling ourselves like this as much as we can while here!

 

Our friend Rea, unlike Anna, was not too shocked with French food or quality. “French food was not much of a cultural shock for me because I am Lebanese and French food and culture is embedded in Beirut. I learned, ate, and read French which still living in a conventional Lebanese cultural setting. I think the French influence is a big positive add-on to the life of the Lebanese.” Rea recommends to try cultural mixing, by dipping a French baguette in traditional Lebanese hummus.

One student here from Australia, Claudia, is living with a homestay family, something not common in our group of friends. In fact, she is the only one (that I know of) in my program who took the homestay option. Most of us have our own apartments with or without roommates, or live in student housing. Claudia’s experience with French food and culture have thus been a bit more intimate. She says that “from my point of view, the meals I share with my host family are as close as I will ever get to French culture.” She enlightens me on the true meaning of French food in culture by saying that “it’s more than just the classic baguette with cheese and good wine…in fact, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with what you’re eating, as long as you can talk about how good it is.”

I absolutely agree with Claudia in the fact that the French take immense pride in the small pleasures of life, including food. A well-prepared shared meal is an excuse to hang out and have good experiences. This is something I notice especially when I go out to eat, and unlike in NYC, staff do not seem to rush your dining experience at all. You are asked whether you want more time in between courses, and waitstaff do not come to your table repeatedly to ask if you need anything, are finished, or need the check. This is something to note – it is not rude to not be hyper-attentive to a table… rather, it is seen as a sign of respect that the people dining want to take their time and enjoy their experience.

Coming back to Claudia’s family, she tells me that “they are a very traditional Catholic family, who eat a big Sunday lunch every week. It’s often roasts with veggies, or something similar, and last for hours… it always involves more than one course.” Although Claudia says she doesn’t go out to eat much, I feel her experience with a traditional French family perfectly showcases the importance of intimate meals with those you care about.

Coming back to the quote that inspired this blog post: “what we consume, how we acquire it, who prepares it, who’s at the table, and who eats first is a form of communication that is rich with meaning.” Everything that I’ve learned about French cuisine and its preparation – a focus on sustainability, the international protection of its culinary customs through UNESCO, the different means of preparation for the thousands of varieties of cheese, wines, breads, and meats they have – has proven to me that the French have a deep connection with what they consume, and only enjoy the finest things. Even simple foods, like bread and cheese, have such rich flavors and come in a variety of options, that you can’t help but think the French are very deliberate with what and how they eat. In this culture, especially with the affordability of good cuisine and its wide availability with pastries and specialty food shops on nearly every corner, it is reasonable to say that everyone deserves to eat well. And any culture that has food so deeply embedded, and considers the pleasure of eating a necessity to life, is a culture that I would consider myself enamored with.

 

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Yummy Italian pizza from a restaurant I visited over spring break… my friend’s sister is a regular there, and I guess the chef adores them as much as I adore food!

 

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Filed under Tammie in France, Western Europe

A Venture into Volta

One of my favorite experiences thus far in my study abroad endeavor was a journey into the Volta Region in Ghana. Ghana is split up into ten regions, and the Volta Region is named accordingly due to its physical border of the grand Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake by surface area in the world. The Akosombo Dam is also located in this region, and provides the majority of energy for the country. The Volta Region holds some of the nation’s most prized natural wonders, some of which I had the chance to see over a refreshing weekend excursion.

At the beginning of our adventure, we stopped to walk over the Adomi Bridge that overlooks the Volta Lake. The bridge held marvelous views of the rolling green hills and fishermans’ villages below. After we crossed, the villagers sold local dishes, most of which included the seafood caught from the lake below.

 

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The view of the lake from the bridge.

 

Later that day, we had the chance to visit a monkey sanctuary called Tafi Atome where wild but protected monkeys approached with hunger as we suspended bananas in front of them. Eventually, the furry creatures warmed up to us, and one even jumped on my arm to take his share of the fruit! Later in the evening we were invited to meet some of the elders in a village nearby, and we went through several customs and rituals such as pouring some alcohol on the ground in honor of the ancestors past.

 

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Our furry friends.

 

The following morning, we awoke at the crack of dawn to begin our hike up the tallest mountain in Ghana. Mt Afadja is 885 meters high, so this was no laid-back climb. High humidity and extreme heat followed us up the nearly entirely vertical path. After the many stops to catch our breath and wipe away the moisture that clung to our clothes, we arrived at the top of the mountain. I hope you trust me when I say that the view was not a disappointment.

 

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After our big hike.

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Posing with the Ghana flag. 

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The incredible view from the top.

 

Following the spectacular views from the top of the mountain, a quick lunch break ensued to refuel our energy for one last big pit stop. A breathtaking waterfall awaited us at a short distance, and not much else sounded better than swimming in chilly water after a long hike. I welcomed the misty spray from the powerful beauty as I approached the base of the falls. Each step closer built my confidence to creep under the crashing beast and I accepted the wonderful pounding of the water to wash away any worry and fill my mind with awe and marvel.

 

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Filed under Africa, Coryl in Ghana

A Day in the Life of Gilman Scholar Elizabeth in London

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Filed under Elizabeth in England, Western Europe