I’m Not Saying My Breakfast Was Better Than Yours, But…

One of the most obnoxious things you ever have to deal with is someone returning from a study abroad and comparing everything in America (especially food) to whatever exotic, fantastic place they visited.  “Oh,” they’ll sniff, “the burgers were so much better in Germany!”  Or perhaps they’ll sigh at lunchtime, “If only I had some French cheese!  They really know to make a meal there…” and then launch into an extended lecture on the superiority of some foreign cuisine.

To avoid becoming that person– because nobody likes that person– I’m promising right now that when I get back to America, unless directly asked, I will not mention how much better x, y, or z was in Jordan.

I’ll never say that the sunset is prettier.  Or that the stars are brighter.  Or that the air is airier.  Or talk about, oh man, how good the food is.

Breakfast at home is a granola bar eaten on the way to class– if I bother with anything more than my coffee.  Today, however, I had cake for breakfast.

In Jordan, this is an acceptable choice. You can totally have cake with breakfast, which doesn’t differ from lunch and dinner like it does in the States.  My host family usually serves pita with cheese, olives, oil and spices, dinner leftovers, and even dessert.  Add in the instant coffee I bought for myself, and breakfast is officially my favorite meal of the day.

Way better than that granola bar, is what I’d say, if I were going to say anything.

Lunch doesn’t have to be any different than usual; Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King, and all your other major fast food chains are within walking distance of our school.  The downside is that eating there will cost you 7 or 8 dollars– expensive even by the standards of home.  Comparing those prices to 45 cent falafel sandwiches at Ibn Batuta restaurant, it’s no wonder most students opt for something with a side of hummus, not french fries.  But of course, I won’t complain about food prices in America, when I can no longer budget $1 a day for lunch.

The most popular option is Bab al-Yemen, which serves up communal dishes you probably can’t pronounce.  Part of the experience is that everything is served with bread– not as a side dish, but as your plate and silverware.  Since it goes without saying that this is a better way of serving food, I won’t say it.

And I promise, when I get home, not to sigh as I shake my silverware from its napkin wrapping, in the hopes that someone will ask what’s wrong.  I promise not to then wax poetic about the sense of community you get from sharing dishes with the table, and literally breaking bread with friends.

There’s always food on the table when Juliana, my roommate, and I get home, thanks to our host family.  Our host mom is an amazing cook– responsible for that cake we had with breakfast.  She’s also responsible for the cheese, olives, etc., since she believes in making everything herself.  So not only is everything good… everything is really good.

Better than home?  Well, you’ll never know.  Because I’ll never take a conversation about cooking as a chance to humble brag about my awesome host mother.  Or about how great it is that Jordanian culture really values home-cooking.  Or about that cake, which, seriously, I couldn’t adequately describe even if I were to try.

I promise never to talk about shakshuka, my favorite dish so far, which consists of eggs and peppers and… um, other things.  (Someday my Arabic will be good enough to ask what those other things are, but today is not that day.)  Suffice it to say that shakshuka’s fantastic… or to not say that, because there’s really no reason to mention how good it is.  Or to add that between our host mom’s cooking and the fact that Jordanians don’t seem to stress about avoiding “bad” foods like Americans do (chocolate, bread, etc.), I feel like my diet contains about 100% more carbs and 200% more deliciousness than usual.

Thankfully our university has a gym to run off some of what I’m eating because, to put non-pretentiously, totally honestly, and without any bragging: the food here is pretty good.

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Loving England, Rain or Shine

My name is Lily Nguyen and I am a student at the University of Central Florida. I am a double major in Hospitality and Event Management and I am studying abroad in Guildford, England at the University of Surrey! I have always dreamed of studying abroad in England and when the departure day came, I couldn’t believe it. The waiting had ended and before I knew it, I was scrambling to get to the airport and to get through security. Everything went by so fast that I felt like I didn’t even have time to be nervous. It wasn’t until I said goodbye to my parents that I realized that it was finally happening. I was about to travel internationally all by myself.

Landing at the London Heathrow airport was surreal. It didn’t feel like I just entered into this new country and that I was finally on British soil! I was so excited for this new adventure and journey to start; however, that feeling didn’t last long. I had a very hard time my first week in this brand new country. I knew that I was going to be homesick, but I definitely didn’t know the extent of how everything would overwhelm me.

It was when I was alone in my dorm room that it hit me – I was alone in a foreign country. I wasn’t able to get my Internet or Wi-Fi setup immediately, so when I wasn’t able to contact my friends on campus, I felt extremely vulnerable and lonely. I began to question why I was in England and why I was doing all of this. But then I realized something…I was just feeling extremely overwhelmed and that that’s perfectly normal.

I had to take a step back to evaluate why I was in England and why I wanted to study abroad in the first place. I had to remember and appreciate the opportunity that the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship by the U.S. Department of State has given to me to achieve this dream of studying abroad. I had to realize that in that moment I was just extremely exhausted, overwhelmed, and homesick. I had to realize that I wasn’t actually alone and I’m sure other study abroad students have felt the same emotions I felt in the beginning.

Once I was able to evaluate the situation, I knew that I was going to be okay. I knew that this journey was going to have bumpy roads, but that’s part of the life adventure and a big part of the fun. I know that every experience through this brand new adventure is going to better myself, even the unpleasant ones. After a week and a half of being in England, each day is better than the last and I learn new things about my host-country and myself every day. Even when there are rainy days, I know I should try to have a smile on my face and appreciate all the experiences that I am able to have in my life. Rain or shine, I know England is where I’m supposed to be at this very moment and I’m excited to experience what it has in store.

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Danish Hygge Food Culture

Smørrebrød, flaeskesteg, snobrød, risengrød, biksemad….herring. What the heck do these strange words mean? And moreover how in the world do you pronounce them? These were my first reactions to Danish food – it was something alien and bizarre – they put pickles and mayonnaise on herring for crying out loud! But as my host family in Copenhagen introduced me to the mouth-watering wonders of flaeskesteg (it’s like a savory juicy pork roast with a rack of crisp salty bacon on top, but better), the warm coziness of a bowl of rice pudding with a pad of melted butter flowing over the cinnamon and sugar you sprinkle on (risengrød), and, with much hesitation, to the way the weird combinations of ingredients in open-faced sandwiches (smørrebrød) actually compliment and enhance each other, I learned to really enjoy them.1

Smørrebrød delight the Danes and remind them of Julefrokost (Christmas-day Lunch). But to Americans these open-faced sandwiches seem unappetizing at best. At first, they were enough to make my stomach turn, but then I forced myself to take a bite… It wasn’t so bad! It even tasted pretty good, in fact. Sure, it was a bit too heavy on the sweet-and-sour flavors like pickles and herring for me, but the chewy rye bread‘s sweet nutty flavor actually paired really well with the savory meats and crisp veggies piled inches high on top. My favorite is one made with a chilled, thick slice of pork covered in red cabbage and pickles. Ot   her varieties are made with liver pate, meat-jelly, and pepper, or fried fish (usually cod) and remoulade (tastes like a more savory mayonnaise), or mini-shrimp marinated in salt-water and mixed on the bread with lettuce, cold butter, freshly cracked pepper, and remoulade. And what’s more? They pair these with herring marinated in either a sweet-cinnamony sauce or curry and then drink snaps and beer with it!3

I would come to find over the next few months that this, at first startling, pairing of opposites makes Danish food interesting, scintillating, and unique. Sour with honeyed, crunchy with smooth, intense with mellow – during a group dinner, Dorthe (one of my host parents’ many close friends) told me with pride that she would never serve a dish without considering these combinations. High-end restaurants like Noma inspire the world with their unique creations– have you ever had a generous helping of beef tartar covered in ants? What about caramelized milk and monkfish liver… Yummmmm. But what these dishes all have in common is a pairing of opposites that excites the senses.2

“Hygge” – the Danish catchphrase, shibboleth, and in many ways formula for living – also plays a lead role in their food culture. Danes go out to hygge with each other, thank each other for a hygge time together, and try to make their homes as hygge as possible. Hygge is both a description and an action – you can call a night spent with friends or a café hygge, but you can also say you’re going to hygge. It implies a sense of coziness, being together with close friends and family, trust and safety, but also living up to a certain norm. You’re expected to participate wholeheartedly in conversation but not predominate, laugh and smile but not overreact. The ideal is someone who is “man hviler i sig selv,” or rests in himself. The Danes treasure an environment that lets people be themselves, and enjoy doing so, without thinking about their outside concerns. Food reflects this harmonious hygge atmosphere – it allows the Danes to come together to enjoy conversation, laugh, share experiences, and discuss their views in a safe, trusting, and cozy atmosphere. At least in my homestay and their group of friends, eating together makes them family. All of them live far from the small villages and farms they grew up on in Jutland, and so they rely on each other for social support, good “hygge” times, and of course for “laekkert mad” (delicious food).4

I think the best food experience I’ve had in Denmark was a light meal of bread cheese red peppers and olives that my friends and I shared at Ølsnedkeren – a craft brewery Copenhagen’s Nørrebro neighborhood. The dinner wasn’t anything special, and there weren’t even any Danes there, but we enjoyed eating, drinking, and laughing together for almost 5 hours. Although the food is important, enjoying a cozy evening (“have en hyggelit aften”) together with friends is better.



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by | March 9, 2015 · 9:28 pm

Much More than Turkish Delight

When considering Turkish food, most people only think of Turkish delight. However, there are infinite more amazing assortments of Turkish food. Before coming to Turkey, I didn’t think about the food very much, so I was pleasantly surprised by the fantastic options this country has to offer.

I have been in Turkey for about six months now, and I have been able to try a large variety of Turkish food. Thankfully there is still quite a bit more for me to experience. One of my favorite things when it comes to the food here is kahvaltı, or breakfast. My friends and I have a favorite little breakfast in our neighborhood and we have made it a tradition to go at least once a week. Turkish breakfast is great because you are served a pile of bread with an assortment of spreads. These spreads includes cheeses, jams, honey, Nutella, and vegetables. Along with these spreads you are served additional side dishes. These can include fried eggs, menemen, and gözleme. Menemen is a mixture of eggs, cheeses, and spices in a skillet served with more bread. Gözleme is a savoury dish with tortilla like dough that is filled with the toppings of your choice. I like to choose spinach, meat, and cheese.

Another great thing about Turkish food is the meat. Because the majority of people here are Muslim, they don’t serve pork, but they sure do make amazing chicken, beef, and lamb dishes. One of my favorites is called dürüm. It is a wrap with slow cooked chicken, beef, or lamb served with vegetables. It is sold at a lot of takeaway places, and is a perfect quick lunch or snack.z1

Turks also really love their sweets. As I said before lokum, or Turkish delight, is a very well known Turkish sweet. Some of my favorites would have to be mozaik pasta, baklava, and künefe. Pasta in Turkish is cake, so mozaik pasta is actually a cake. It is a chocolate cake with broken cookies inside and can be found at almost any cafe. Baklava and künefe are desserts that require quite a bit of skill to bake. Baklava consists of many thin layers with syrup and usually a nutty flavor. There are many assortments, but my favorite is definitely the normal pistachio baklava. Künefe is another pistachio covered dessert. It is made with cheese baked into layered dough. Cheese doesn’t seem like it belongs in a dessert dish, but trust me, it does!

None of these desserts would be complete without a cup of Turkish coffee or çay, which is Turkish tea. People in Turkey drink çay with everything. If you want to talk with a friend you get a cup of çay. If you’re studying for an exam you get a cup of çay. If you need a little something after a big meal, don’t worry because most restaurants serve cups of çay for free with your meal. Çay goes with anything and everything.

The couple foods I ate that would be classified as strange were actually outside of Turkey. One was in the Netherlands and one was in Morocco. The strange food I tried in the Netherlands was raw herring topped with onions and pickles. I was quite nervous to try this dish because it’s RAW and also the way you eat it is by holding the tail of the fish and sliding the whole thing into your mouth. However, I was determined to do as the Dutch do, so I ate it and it actually tasted pretty great.z2

The other “strange” food I ate was in Fes, Morocco. It was the peeled fruit of a cactus. It had quite a lot of seeds and it didn’t taste sweet or bitter, but I quite liked it. The fruit is very, very pink and it ended up staining my hands for the rest of the day.z3

Eventually, when I have to leave this beautiful place, one of the things I will miss most will definitely be the food. Not only because of the fact that it tastes delicious, but also because it is how I really got to know people here. Some of the best conversations I have had while in Turkey have been over the dinner table, and I am really going to miss that. However, I have over three months left, so I have plenty more food experiences to come.

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Week One: Tanzania

During this first week, it was hard to have first impressions or preconceived notions because we had not yet interacted with anyone outside of our staff at the refuge camp area, but now I have had an extra week in Tanzania exploring cities and national parks and have developed a few thoughts.

I am not entirely sure what I expected in Tanzania, but I know that everything I have experienced thus far would not have been imagined even in my wildest dreams. I think I expected to struggle adjusting to new foods, a fear that was almost completely diminished when I had my first taste of our amazing camp food. I also didn’t expect the stark contrasts between the westernized tourist areas and the rural mud-stick hut areas almost next door to each other. Though some of the main differences I have encountered between Tanzania and the United States lie in the customs and common attitudes of how people interact with each other. Here are just a few examples of these differences:

1) In Tanzania, it is always customary to say hello and engage in a brief greeting to any and every stranger you pass on the street (I have found this is only true in certain areas back home for me).
2) When asked how your day is going, never respond “bad”, things are always good. Unless of course, there has been a death.
3) There is no rush when it comes to service. You may wait over an hour for your meal order. Things just seem to run at a slower pace and people often spend a tremendous time eating and talking before paying the bill to leave.
4) Clapping is the appropriate way to get someone’s attention, whereas yelling is considered rude.
5) Locals will often approach you on the street hoping to practice their English and then become essentially your personal tour guide taking you around the city for hours to find whatever you are looking for. The only compensation they ask for (if any) is usually just that you will visit their relatives’ store, in hopes that you may make a small purchase.
6) You must bargain if you want a good price as you are almost always quoted double the value of an item and expected to haggle your way down to something reasonable.
7) Public displays of affection are basically non-existent. Although behind closed doors affection is allowed to be expressed fully, once in public even hugs are considered inappropriate.
8) Depending on the area you are in (rural, city, campground) the appropriate attire changes dramatically, especially for women. While on safari it may be appropriate to wear shorts and a tank top, in many towns and rural areas you must cover either your knees, shoulders, or both with a traditional fabric cloth known as a kanga.
9) It is easy to find a good full meal for about 2,000 Tanzanian shillings, the equivalent of just over $1 USD.
10) There are distinctly different greetings and methods of addressing people depending upon if they are younger, older, or your peers. It is rude to mix up these greetings with the wrong age group.

Each day my mind continues to expand as my brain is shaken by new ideas and the complex issues in wildlife conservation and political ecology. I am thoroughly excited for my next few weeks where I will be living in a remote village with a local family, taking Swahili classes each day and being fully immersed in this unique culture.

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Coffee, Turkish and Otherwise

Oh, sweet merciful heavens, Starbucks.  I don’t even drink Starbucks in the US– I like plain, black coffee, so their concoctions aren’t my style– but at this point I’m desperate: It’s three in the afternoon, yesterday was a full 24 hours without my fix, and now Starbucks is an oasis in this coffee desert.

You thought Arab culture involved a lot of coffee?  Yeah, me too.  But my host family drinks tea in the morning (talking to other study abroad students in Jordan, this seems to be common), and while most cafes offer a Turkish coffee (think espresso but with a sludge of grounds in the bottom), it just isn’t the same.  If you desire “American coffee”, as the sweet black nectar of the heavens is called here, expect to pay 4-5 dollars for maybe, if you’re lucky, 12 oz.  What I wouldn’t give for an enormous Styrofoam cup of terrible gas station brew right now!

Although, to be fair, I’m glad I’m only wrestling with coffee demons; students who’ve given up smoking in the past are finding their own predicament harder to deal with.  It turns out that smoking is ubiquitous in Jordan: at home, in restaurants, on the sidewalk (in a box with a fox).  I might as well be a smoker, from the sheer amount of second-hand I’m picking up.  (On the plus side, I’ve been informed by a smiling tour guide that cancer treatment in Jordan is free if you can’t afford it.)

Even here, at the Starbucks in City Mall, someone is smoking.  And, yes, the mall; not a souq, or a bazaar, or some other collection of booths displaying scarves and “magic” lamps.  A mall with a Forever 21 and a glorious Starbucks, and even a small amusement park.  That’s where my friends are now, strapped into a machine that will spin them around, but I can barely think straight much less deal with screaming children without my — “Qahwa sawda’, lo smaht,” I order.  Black coffee, please.

And oh, is it good.

Now that I’m caffeinated, and therefore thinking, I decide I’ll pick up a bottle of instant coffee while I’m here (of course the mall has a full-size grocery store) thereby ending this daily frantic search for my next cup of joe.  Because, let’s face it, as much as I want to be open-minded during this experience and adjust to life in Jordan, I’m not about to give up my American coffee.

I’m sure I’ll feel the same longing for things unique to Jordan when I return home, such as the hospitality to strangers.  I ordered my textbook in a copy shop the other day, and the storeowner told me it would be half an hour.  I said I’d return then, and turned to leave.  “No, sit!” he stopped me.  “Please, make yourself at home.”  He served me Turkish coffee and offered to help me with my homework when I pulled out a list of Arabic drills.  Another assistant chatted with me about my studies and my home in the US.  Two young boys ran back and forth, stopping occasionally to peer from behind one of the adults.  I can’t imagine this happening back home, where I’d be told to leave or sit in a glossy waiting area, instead of among the employees, playful children, and clickety-clacking printers.

I’ll almost certainly miss this generosity of spirit in much the same way I’m now missing coffee; unfortunately, unlike Nescafe, it isn’t exactly something I can pick up at the mall.  I’ll just have to bring it back with me and hope it catches on, inviting people in for a chat and making them a coffee– maybe even a Turkish coffee, because, if I’m being honest, it’s actually pretty good.

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Culture Shock Progression – Not so Linear

What struck me when I first saw this diagram was how closely it resembles diagrams of the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Culture ShockThe griever feels at first denial, then anger, next bargaining, followed by depression, and finally acceptance. I really don’t like that resemblance, however superficial. It eliminates all the agency of the student traveler – disasters and loss happen to someone, they can’t control it, and that’s part of why loss is so traumatizing. They go through these stages as psychological compensations for a reality that they cannot change.

But contrary to grief, exploring a new culture is a choice. The person voluntarily (usually) travels to the new country, takes an active role in exploring and trying to understand the culture and people there. Through their actions and conversations, they can create their experience and in doing so have a considerable advantage over someone who is experiencing loss.

I think one of the most important things you learn during travel is how to master it, to ride it like a skiff with the ever-present knowledge that if you don’t stay of top of it you can get swept away. I don’t think anyone ever really manages to stay completely dry, but over time you can learn to at least keep the boat from sinking.


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