Tag Archives: host family

The Return (Unaffiliated with Derrick Rose)

My final days in St. Petersburg went as usual: I would avoid the massive pothole that is usually filed with water outside of our building door, I would reply to the graffiti remarks in my head on my walk to school, passing by the tastiest Georgian restaurant that became a Friday evening favorite, and running diagonally to cross a huge intersection before the cars started going for us – all done of course in St. Petersburg fashion, with rain clouds denigrating the sky in the background. Though everything appeared typical, my thoughts and pangs in my heart spoke more solemnly. This anguish was sourced from my growing relationship with my family in Russia (mom, bro, sister), knowing that although I was returning to America, I was leaving my family behind.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it... and just plopped a pile of asphalt on a fraction of the hole. It's still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

After five years of phoning to the city government to fix the pothole, they finally came around to it… and just plopped a pile of asphalt in a fraction of the hole. It’s still progress and I will actually miss that pothole that greeted me every day before entering our building.

This meant that I would be bereft of my Russian mother’s delicious borsch, the interesting conversations with my sister on Jewish art, and the reverberations from my brother’s guitar, voice, and even harder-hitting lyrics. The core of my sadness wasn’t simply leaving behind the aspects of their care for me, it was more so the frustration that came with knowing that they are the ones who have to continue living there during the economic hardships in Russia. Though the ruble’s depreciation may have been convenient for the American students, the hard-hitting financial, economic, and social impact on Russia that comes with major recession and high inflation is devastating to communities, including that of my host family.

I realize that this financial crisis is a burden that cannot be immediately solved by regular citizens, let alone myself, so I really had to focus on the good aspects of my experience there. On my last day in Russia, my mom there prepared a meal for the four of us, my brother prepared some music that he performed with his guitar, and my sister also participated in the entertaining conversations. When it was finally time to leave, I will never forget the sullen faces of my host mom and sister through the glass window of my taxi. The taxi driver asked me if I was going home and with a brief moment to think, I replied with, “da.”

I am very thankful for the love, care, and hospitality that my host family in Russia provided. We are a team that is not to be separated anytime soon. I have made a promise to return and I choose to live by my word.

I am also very thankful for the excitement and mirth of the holiday season in America. Upon my return, streets were gleaming with decorative lights, Christmas trees were elaborately and sumptuously adorned, and my friends and family welcomed me with wide smiles and open arms. I think that if it weren’t for Christmas, my 21st birthday and New Years all within three days of each other, my return would have been a little more gloomy. Fortunately, I am surrounded by loved ones that made my adjustment back to the States as warm and welcoming as a cup of Russian tea.

Until next time, my dear St. Petersburg.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can't take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

As the famous saying goes, you can take the girl out of Russia, but you can’t take the Russia out of the girl. Adorned with a Soviet wool scarf on Christmas Day.

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Filed under Boryana in Russia, Eastern Europe

Thanks for Kicking Me Off the Newspaper

Thus far, has your study abroad experience influenced your academic and professional goals? If so, how?

Your views on life can change only when something challenges them, throws them into sharp relief that exposes their true nature. For me, coming to Denmark was like realizing that a rolled up newspaper is not flat, but in fact three-dimensional. Throughout my high school and college experience, I had viewed going through the pre-medical path as a straight-line trajectory designed to give me the information I would need to eventually treat sick people. As if I was walking on the surface of this rolled-up newspaper, I continued straight ahead, convinced that I was moving forward by reading only what was on the surface. My experiences in Denmark have literally kicked me off this limited viewing platform and shown me that I have much more freedom in my chosen path than I knew. Walking on that straight-line path wasn’t teaching me anything about myself, and in the end I would have ended up right where I began. Seeing the Danes’ view on healthcare and life in general has introduced me to the value in taking my time – fully appreciating and, most importantly, questioning what I’m doing.

Learning about Scandinavian healthcare systems in the core course of my program introduced me to the merits of socialized healthcare. The goal of the Danish, Swedish, Estonian (they use Denmark as a model!), and to a large extent most European healthcare systems is to provide equal access to quality care for all of the country’s residents. Issues with illegal immigrants aside, they all do a fairly good job of this. Doing so allows them to drastically reduce their healthcare costs by focusing on preventative care coordinated through general practitioners. Partially because of their small size, but more so because everyone literally buys into the system (through taxes), they are able to minimize cost for procedures & medicines, and they can provide people with enough choice that hospitals & practitioners still remain on the cutting edge.

Interestingly, Denmark and the U.S. spend about the same amount of money on public healthcare, but the U.S. drastically outspends every country in the world on private healthcare options. But does this really lead to better outcomes? The common opinion in Denmark (and Scandinavia as a whole) is no. The U.S. may provide outstanding medical care to the few who can afford expensive surgeries or arduous therapies, but the millions of Americans still uninsured (and even those who are insured) seldom see this quality of treatment. People also wait to seek medical care until their condition worsens, which significantly increases the cost of their treatment. In contrast, EVERY LEGAL RESIDENT OF DENMARK IS INSURED, and receives affordable and (relatively) fast healthcare when they need it. Seeing the differences between the U.S. and Scandinavian healthcare systems so starkly contrasted prompted me to doubt my previous assumption that America provided the best healthcare in the world.

On top of this, the Danish approach to society attacked my American love of the individual. Sure, we can be patriotic and champion both freedom and individual rights, but are the Americans who are saddled with exorbitant medical bills, college tuition payments, and taxes really free? In paying 30-60% (depending on their income) of their earnings in taxes, the Danes in effect pay their way out of worrying about not only their healthcare, but also their education, infrastructure, government, and even unemployment/disability (as the government sets up rather secure and broad safety nets for any residents who “fall off the boat”). By having a socialized system, depending on each other, it seems to me like the Danes actually earn more personal freedom than many Americans ever get to enjoy.

The Danish approach to medical education also threw a sharp left-hook at my preconceived notions of my path to being a doctor. One night, my host parents had invited over a couple who happened to be medical students. However, when I saw them, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Not only did they look normal, they actually looked great! No dark bags remnant of long sleepless nights sagged under their eyes, they looked fit as if they had time to work out, and what’s more they had a kid! So astonished was I that I didn’t actually talk to them until after we had finished eating. When I finally did, I told them about my aspiration to be a general practitioner in the U.S.; they, in turn, shared their experiences of the Danish medical system with me. The Danish government pays them to go to medical school, and they even received extra money when they had their son. They work about 45 hours a week (and officially only 37 hours a week), and have ample vacation time. They each even took an entire year off to care for their infant son, and now are both close to finishing their degrees and entering internships. How different was this from the stories I’d heard of the daily, sleepless struggle that defines medical school in the U.S!

Along with a general Danish attitude of “being at peace with oneself,” this couples’ experiences convinced me that I didn’t have to continue running blindly along the pre-set medical student path in the U.S. Who ever told me that I had to go directly to medical school upon graduation? Why couldn’t I get into a great school, even with good-but-not-great grades? Although it’s slowly changing, the mentality in the U.S. towards medical school is part of why so many doctors burn out, why I thought this couple would be haggard and “hate their lives.” From them, I learned that, even if it isn’t completely normal, I could take my time in becoming a doctor. If it means that I’ll end up being more “at peace” with myself, and as a result better able to treat my patients, then I think it’s well worth it.

Denmark has taught me to “chill out.” I know that medical school in the U.S. will be a much more rigorous ordeal than in Denmark, but worrying about it will only make it worse. In taking my time with the progression through the medical system, I can critically question each step and, hopefully, try to improve parts that need revision.

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Filed under Nathaniel in Denmark, Western Europe

A Little Bit of Everything – Dakar

I’m slowly learning my way around Dakar. The transportation here is crazy. As a health and safety precaution, my program’s studentswere instructed to only take taxis, yet taxis mean bartering for the price in Wolof! This is probably the thing that gives me the most stress in Senegal. The taxi men try to charge me two to three times the normal price. In retrospect it’s about $3 instead of $1.50 for a 15 minute taxi ride, but sometimes I still barter with 3 or 4 taxis before I either get a good price or I decide to walk.School is going well. The French education system is a lot more laid back without a definite plan for each class. I feel as though we go on tangents a lot and I’m never sure if I’m learning the right things. I decided that the key to school is to learn something, anything, and I feel like that is happening. Although, most of the time I wish I wasn’t confined to a classroom. Besides taking five classes, I have an internship helping out at orphanages and schools around Dakar, I’m teaching English two nights a week, and Ihave been involved with church activities for the two young women that live here. Side note about church– We have 3 baptisms this Saturday here in Senegal!!! Woot! My little group of 12 church members has become a home away from home!012

033Being involved in all of these activities leads to a very busy schedule, and I usually end up leaving my house around 7:30am and getting home around 8:00pm. When I get home, I make sure to talk to my host family for at least an hour or two to show that I appreciate them, and then I pass out under my mosquito net until my 6:30am alarm goes off or I hear the Muslim call to prayer from the mosque down the street at 5:30 in the morning.


This past weekend the program took a vacation to a resort in Toubab Dilaow which is about an hour drive outside of Dakar, on the coast. When I was there, I was able to learn batik- a Senegalese art of dye-ing fabric and painting with hot wax to prevent parts of the fabric from dyeing. I also learned some traditional dancing. We had excellent food and had a great time swimming in the ocean. It was gorgeous!!


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Filed under Africa, Joshua in Senegal

Velkommen til København (Welcome to Copenhagen)


Nyhavn – this canal leads out to the harbor, which you can actually swim in because they keep it so clean!

It’s the little things that catch your eye. Well, not at first. At first you’re Rushed, Rushed, Rushed ¿Confused? Tiiired, IMOBLIZED hungry Rushed and finally, after 10-plus hours and land in sight, relieved. You sigh, feel yourself relaxing just a bit, and then, only then, do you look around and notice these little things.

Like a translucent orb seeming to float, weightless, in mid-air that turns out to be a streetlight. Stoplights that flash a yellow warning before turning green. Colors that don’t seem to quite match. A citrusy, astringent aroma that seems to perfume all of the public transit busses and trains. A building that leans so comically off-kilter that it seems to stumble into its sturdier rectangular friend placed strategically to one side. And bikes. Bikes everywhere! Bikes carrying their riders to trains, bikes in trains, bikes in special lanes on the streets, bikes locked to other bikes locked to the omnipresent bike-racks.

A sign at the airport you saw earlier said “Velkommen til København,” introducing you in the friendliest way possible to the one of the most difficult languages to pronounce, at least in the opinion of your newly-made friends. And who even are these “friends?” You just met them 20 minutes ago! Now you’re exploring the city with them as if you’d known each other for the past year.

And then you notice the feeling that’s been resting calmly in the background since you left Boston. It’s a sense of purpose, of tranquility, lying under the more superficial feelings of anxiety and confusion. You’ve done this before – travelled to a new place with new people. It was completely your choice to do it then as now, and it worked out well before.

Times up! You slip out of your thoughts to your friend (yes, he is my friend now) calling out that you have to get back to meet your respective host families. My family? Right! Of course, I’m staying with people here. God you’re tired.

Later, they show up and your name is called as if you were back in elementary school and your parents’ minivan with the bumper stickers and comfy seats had just driven up. You feel so happy, elated, even joyful (and again relieved) to finally, finally meet the people you’ll be living with for the next four months. Jan (“Yan”) and Dot are friendly and funny, entertaining you as they take you on a car tour of Copenhagen. And the best part? They speak English as if you were still in the US. This string of familiarities soothes the jarring harshness of the unknowns you just faced like sleep taking away all the troubles of a day. Sleep! You’re exhausted. While on the flight, your body overcame it with adrenaline and numbness. Now, however, you’re parasympathetic nervous system is kicking in and you’re starting to really feel the exhaustion. You can’t wait to get back to your host parents’ house and just sleep….

But they don’t let you! They know (far better than your body) that it’s 10 am and it’s time to be up! It’s time to meet you host brother Anton! He’s about your age, with a big smile and easy laugh to match his gregarious personality. You spend the day with them doing various small activities. By dinnertime you’re almost incoherent. Your host family asks “What did you say?” repeatedly, because you’re repeating yourself, and them, and the world just doesn’t make sense. You think it will make sense after you sleep, so you finally give in and go to bed at 9 pm. Exhausted, bewildered, happy. You know this is what you should be doing. This is right….

This mingled apprehension, confusion, excitement, and odd sense of calmness made up the whirlwind that was my first day in Denmark. The plane arrived at Copenhagen airport at about 6 am and we had to wait until 10 for our host parents to arrive, so my new friends and I went to explore the nearest neighborhood: Christianshavn (not to be confused with Christania). The old, colorful, intricately-detailed buildings along this harbor melded beautifully with the cobblestone streets and fresh coffee we bought and made us feel truly in Denmark. Later, my host parents were smart enough to keep me up, which saved me from having any jetlag during the first week.

I chose to describe this first day in such detail beacause it’s actually a very good illustration of how I’ve felt since then. I’ve explored some of the most beautiful and historic places in Copenhagen, celebrated a Silver Wedding (25th wedding anniversary) with friends of my host family, made new friends, bungyjumped over the harbor, and visited my host grandparents in the source of the spirit of Denmark: Jutland (more to come on these later!). Through it all I’ve been feeling the same jumbled mixture of emotions as on the first day, but, most importantly, I’ve been welcomed. Directly opposing the stereotype of Danes as closed to outsiders, I’ve felt so accepted by my host family and literally every Dane I’ve met (not an exaggeration). They are friendly, warm, fun-loving, and always making jokes.

My experience with my host grandparents shows this best. Jutlanders are stereotyped by Danes from more metropolitan areas as serious, tough farmers with no senses of humor. When I arrived there with my host family, I didn’t know this (and was better for it). Jørgen and Mie, the parents of my host father Jan, certainly didn’t speak any English, but they were as warm and loving as the grandparents in a Christmas movie. I was content to sit and eat the authentic Danish meal they had prepared for us while they all spoke in the Jutland dialect, but about half-way through the meal Jørgen suddenly turned to me and said, in halting but coherent English, “I normally speak proper Danish, but today I’m speaking in my dialect so I can annoy Dot.” Everyone laughed. Up until this point I thought he spoke zero English, and to have him communicate directly with me, in my own language, was nothing short of a blessing. Jan, Dot, and Anton made me feel at home in Copenhagen – Jørgen and Mie made me feel welcomed to all of Denmark.

Clockwise from left: my host mother, Dot, me, my host father, Jan, Jan's father Jørn and Jan's mother Mie.

Clockwise from left: my host mother, Dot, me, my host father, Jan, Jan’s father Jørn and Jan’s mother Mie.

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Filed under Nathaniel in Denmark, Western Europe

Bienvenue en AFRIQUE!


The city (I took it from the airplane)

I can’t believe I am actually in AFRICA! There is so much I want to write about and so much to tell, but mostly I wanted to tell you how grateful I am to be here! It is very surreal and I am constantly reminding myself that I’m actually in Africa! I love the people, the culture, and the hospitality. I won’t be able to express all that is going on, so please comment with specific questions and I’ll answer those.

The first few days we have been going through an orientation (lots of time in the classroom and little time to explore). We learn about Senegalese customs, learn to dance a little, learn how to eat around the bowl (this means we all eat out of the same big bowl and sit on pillows on the floor), learn about Senegalese EVERYTHING! I feel like I have forgotten most of what they said, but luckily I am not afraid to ask over and over again. Out of the forty-ish students here, I am definitely the one who doesn’t mind talking with the locals. I have made friends with about everyone I have met, and they are so welcoming. The Senegalese have one word that represents their culture: TERANGA. This roughly translates to hospitality. They have a firm belief to always invite people in and help foreigners because they never know if they will need help in the future. People gladly help me with directions, finding transportation, and I have already been given so many gifts.  I have had special excursions to some markets and have been introduced to several people around the city while the rest of the students just stay in the hotel. I am truly trying to get out there and experience the culture– and don’t worry mom, I’m being safe.


Hotel Room (aka the orphanage)

So since there is so much to write about, I will try to give an adequate abridgment of Senegal through my eyes with the understanding that I will never fully explain the entirety of this awesome experience.

The City

Dakar is a thriving metropolis. There are so many people, street vendors and cars everywhere. We have to cross a giant highway to get to school (which is terrifying since pedestrians have no rights) and I feel like I’m always a bit anxious when I cross. They have three main neighborhoods where students live. I live in the furthest one which is called Ouakam. Try to search for pictures from Oaukum on the internet to see where I live. This is a developing country so that means that there are livestock on the streets, dirt roads, no dependable source of running water, and frequent electricity cuts. I’m learning to shower out of a bucket and enjoy being sweaty and smelly all the time.


The food is crazy delicious. Of course the main dish is rice and fish, but my host mom explained that she likes a variety of food. Everyone here eats out of one large bowl. Normally they eat with their hands, yet my family has adopted silverware after having been a host family for 6 years. Most of the dishes are very simple- lentils, french fries, rice, onions, etc. My favorite is the fruit, especially the MANGOS! They are so delicious! I eat about three a day because it also costs only one dollar for a kilo. I’m loving the food and so far no illness.

My Host Family


My family

So the best part so far is my host family. They insist that I call them ” Mama” and “Papa” along with my three brothers and one sister. Here are their names so you can get some sort of idea of who I’m living with: Simon Pierre, Bernadette, Christian (26), Amelie (23), Pappi (17), and Benoit (9). My little brother Benoit already loves me so much– he follows me around, copies what I do, always wants to play and gets sad every time I have to leave. My very first night with the family almost felt like I was in the United States. We had spaghetti for dinner and after we all played UNO! I am super blessed to be living with a family that shares my beliefs and has made me feel at home so quickly.

As I said, there is so much that has happened and so many people I have met! I am really missing feeling dry and smelling clean, but I know I will soon get over that. There is so much talk about EBOLA and with one case emerging in Senegal, I am trying to enjoy each day and do as much as I can.


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Filed under Africa, Joshua in Senegal

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