Category Archives: International

I didn’t choose the co-op life, the co-op life chose me

I live in the Marylow co-op, a happy little island in the ocean of, well,  other happy islands (?). This analogy is really falling apart.

Marylow is a Colby dorm that is a little removed from the buzz of the academic buildings, but still close to important places such as Dana (f00d), Foss (food), the Marylow coffee house(food and chill and performances), Runnals (performances), and Cotter Union (food and chill; occasional entertainment). In the big happy family of Marylow, there is a small wing where students like me live the to-op lifestyle.

Co-op is the option that we do not want to meal plans offered by Colby (3 meals a day in the dinning halls), and instead opt to take the 2000 cash and cook for ourselves. Of course, if you are paying tuition that is more than 2000 dollars, then the school just deduct the total tuition that you need to pay. I am in co-op mostly because I never go for the three meals in the dining halls, and it is just a lot cheaper to cook for myself. Some people do it due to dietary restrictions. As a foodie who grew up in Hong Kong, I will eat anything delicious. Once I had turtle soup, and I eat snakes every winter back at home. So, the dietary thing  is clearly not applicable to me.

I really enjoy the co-op, mostly because of the community. The kitchen can be a social hub, and you definitely know everyone who lives around you; you will be bumping into each other constantly. There are many international students living there, so it is pretty cool to know what people in different cultures eat. Food is the glue to relationships, and there is nothing more beautiful than sharing a meal with friends, or making friends by sharing meals. There is just something about making food together that bonds people; it has the same effect of going to a battle together and less death and blood and gore. I mean, the last part probably depends on what you are cooking.

Of course there are also downsides. The kitchen is not the cleanest place you will find on Earth, and much of the appliances are fairly dated (wink wink, Colby, wink wink). The students in the co-op do a very good job in cleaning up the place, but there are instances where a pot with congealed mystery goo is left sitting in the counter for weeks before someone has the courage to clean it. There is also this beautiful tradition of passing utensils and appliances from generation of Colby students to the next. Whenever you visit co-op and pick up a fork, remember that it embodies many good times of ghosts of Colby past; it puts a smile to my face.

Here are some pictures of my friends Jasmine and me cooking. We had a jolly good time.

Skillfully cutting up kale.

Jasmine taking a picture with kale.

Attempting to take a selfie with Jasmine and kale. If you haven’t noticed, we really like kale.

Steamed egg with shrimp and chousum (it’s a vegetable that Chinese eat more often than Americans), and rice.

 

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A Sad Post with a Happy Ending.

This post starts out sad (angry? angsty?) but it ends happy. Bear with me.

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It had been a difficult few months. I felt so exhausted at times, that I would like to just curl up like a cat, or ride into the sunset on a horse. In the second scenario, I would prefer to have a stalk of wheat in my mouth, and a pair of old blue jeans.

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It is very easy to pretend that life is going all right. You just have to put on a smile and talk to people, in a kinda sorta witty way. I like to think that even though I can blend in quite well with normal people when times call for it. Much like the Docotr, but in a way less intelligent, interesting way. I mean, not everyone’s lives can be filled with time travel and aliens and awesomely fun yet deep plot lines.

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If addicted to Doctor Who is wrong, I do not want to be right.

P.S.: Sorry for a really bad attempt of drawing Matt Smith.

Sometimes I get so scared to make new friends. New friendships are delicate, and nurturing one is much like that exercise where you need to carry around an egg for a week. It is delicate and weak, so easily broken by words and glances and shyness, and the cruelest of all, other people. At times when you are already down and weary, it seem impossible for me to keep up. So I keep things light and fluffy, talking about cat gifs and food.

Sometimes I miss my family, my old friends.

I have been on the road a lot, and it is something that makes me fairly proud. I like to think of myself as independent, strong, able to face the world, able to face myself, able to make right choices and hopefully, able to help others. “Not all those who wander are lost.” I know there are relatives that think that I am lost. Gone. I like to think that I am making mistakes and learning. You know, like when you are a kid, and you know that you should not ride the bike down a slope, but you did it anyway because you think you have a off change of flying into the moon, and hurt your ankle, but you are kind of glad you did it. Or in my case, how I ventured into anime and fantasy novels and Doctor Who; I know I would probably study more but these imaged worlds are too beautiful. I like to think of myself as having side adventures rather than lost.

But sometimes I get caught off guard, life snarls and slither in the corner and attack you when you are hiking. you get bitten, and you feel dizzy and have to sit for a while.

A friend of mine from middle school decided to walk off a platform, into a train. It happened in late March, but I still feel the heaviness in my heart. It is haunting to look through the photos, and see her smiling back at me, so happy, so innocent. We were friends back then, and frankly we hardly talked after we were 16, because life happened. I remembered that she had that perfect Christian school British accent, and that she was the one making decisions. She was a perfect, a much better student than I ever was.

My mind keep on playing her last moments like a silent movie, every moment magnified. How she walked up to the station, and the breeze made her hair dance. The people around her walked fast, but she was slow in pace, patting the last will tucked in her pocket. A step and another, she stood on the yellow line that painted near the gap. She might have muttered apologies, under her breath, to her parents. Her tears running down her cheeks, like pearls running loose, but no one could see because she was looking at her feet. How the light from the approaching train grew brighter, and she took that leap. How softly she fell.

I stayed up nights, when my mind rimmed these down my throat, like that scene from Clockwork Orange. I feel so stupid, that I know I have people who love me and care for me and there is work and finals and I should probably call my parents.

But that scene expand like a ballon, a hot air ballon, a zeppelin. Slowly it explodes and the smell of burnt past feel the air, until there is nothing but tongue of flame, sea of smoke. I know it is silly, and there are so many big problems out there that is bigger than my little problem, but that did not make it less scary, or less painful.

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Maybe I was just lonely.

Then one day, I sat up during the night, and I took a walk. In Copenhagen at night. Nyhavn,  where all the postcard photos were taken, is a magically place. There is something in the wind, maybe, or in the glittering water, or the swaying boats. The streetlights, the colorful houses. I started smiling, a small but quite genuine smile. Not the dime-a-dozen kind. I could felt my eye corners winkle (which might cause problems, namely crow’s feet, in my 40s), and I giggled. Then I teared up a little. I sat on the edge of the canal, cried and laughed. Much like a crazy person (sorry, good people of Copenhagen for being weird). I could feel the stone in my heart fidgeting uncomfortably. I walked back home and ate pasta. I slept.

Things gotten better. I talked to my professors who were simply the best. This month,  I started working for a really great professor who is beyond awesome. Also, the turbulence around that revealed the best in people. When the silent movie play in my head, I am there, and I tell her that she could see the greatness in people. I tell her that I miss her. I tell her that things are going to be fine.

The heroic mom who talked down the Woolwich, so calm and strong even when it was so dangerous. She taught me courage is to think logically and selflessly in bad times.

The people in Boston who stand strong even after such a traumatic event. They taught me to face difficult times with a smile, that a tiny pinch of humor can make a world of difference.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/summeranne/30-inspiring-portraits-of-the-people-of-boston

The students who fought for the first ever integrated prom in Wilcox, and won. They taught me that if something’s worth fighting for, I need to take charge, despite traditions, barriers. What is old is not always true.

http://www.buzzfeed.com/maxblau/the-fight-for-wilcox-countys-first-integrated-prom

All these bits and pieces washes over me like the warm bubbles of a hot tub, and my heart feels like it is illuminated by fireflies. Yes, I still feel down at times, and there are tears and laughters, but I know that I will be okay.

You know what, we are fantastic. I can definitely go through my little, tiny problems, we can all go through our problems because we are great.

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Thank you for your greatness, (insert your name).

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Irish Shenanigans

Spring break has officially begun! My first stop: Ireland.

My friend and I packed our carry-ons and headed to the airport at 5:30 am.  When you’re traveling on a student budget, you buy the cheapest flight possible–even if that means flying with the joy that is Ryan Air at absurd times in the morning.

When we left London, it was snowing, but when we arrived in Dublin an hour later, the sun was shining and the streets were much less crowded that we were used to. We spent the afternoon wandering around the city, before crashing early.  The next day was the start of our real adventure: a 3-day Ireland bus tour.

After a slight fiasco with finding the bus the next morning, we headed on the road, cameras at the ready.  Our tour guide was fantastic, filling us in on the local history of each area we went to. Our first stop was Cork, where we had lunch and explored Blarney Castle. I even kissed the famous Blarney Stone, which is said to give you the “gift of the gab.”  We headed to Killarney after Cork, where my friend and I took a horse and buggy around the National Park that boarded the town.  After spending the night hanging out with the locals, we got an early start on the road the next morning.  We spent our day in the adorable coastal town of Dingle, which reminded me a lot of the small coastal towns in Maine. After Dingle, we headed down to Ennis, where we spent our second night. Our last day consisted of the stunning Cliffs of Moher, the town of Galway for lunch, and the Burren, a vast lunar landscape-esque expanse.  Words can’t do any of these places justice, so I shall let my pictures speak for me.

Blarney Castle–where I kissed the Blarney Stone!

Taking a drive through the Killarney National Park.

Stunning views from our horse and buggy ride!

I touched the Atlantic Ocean… and felt a bit closer to home!

The tiny town of Dingle! Home of the best ice cream ever.

Breathtaking cliffs. See the cave? That’s the one in the Harry Potter movie!

This is the Burren… Apparently NASA has used it as a training location!

We arrived back in London on Sunday night. My friend and I flew back to London on Tuesday, so we spend Monday exploring the city. We spent four hours at the Guinness Factory (of course!), and then spent some time discovering the Book of Kells at Trinity College. After that, we headed over to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Evensong before heading to the pub to find some traditional Irish music.

Tuesday morning on our way back to London, my friend and I both realized we had left a little bit of our hearts in Ireland. There was just something about that place!

Next stop: Marseille, France!

Until next time, Morgan

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My Walking Diaries

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Wow! I am in Denmark! Can you believe it? No? Me neither! I am so excited I could scream! You know what I am already shouting in my head! AHHHHH!

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So, I hope this gives you an idea about how ecstatic I am.

I love walking. I have always loved walking. Everywhere I went, I walk. Sometimes I go with a map; sometimes I just let my feet wander. There’s a certain charm about taking a stroll that no bus tour or ferry ride can replace; except maybe a trademark Copenhagen bike ride around the city. I chose walking since I aspire not to harm any innocent pedestrian with my truly “superior” cruising skills.

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The first day in Copenhagen, I got hopelessly, wonderfully lost. I didn’t just string the words together because they sound cool. I really was hopelessly lost, I was trying to find the train station, and after walking for 45 minutes, I realized that I was walking in a circle, and back to my original spot; it really was wonderful, because the only way to know a city’s beauty is to stroll her secret alleys, her cobblestone roads, her little coffee shops. It’s almost like an awkward first date. I fell in love after hearing about Copenhagen from my advisor. In a pathetic attempt to understand her better, I turned to the Internet and friends, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. I was charmed and mesmerized, my eyes filled with her lights and stars. I made a fool out of myself by turning into all the wrong streets and corners, making shy eye contacts and timid conversations with strangers, but the fear and worries were soft and clouded by a warm, fuzzy feeling. It was magical.

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famous postcard view.

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Rundetårn, the famous Round Tower, which is the oldest functioning observatory in Europe. It is special that it is attached to a church, showing the combination of science and faith in the Renaissance period.

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Apparently danishes are not called danishes in Denmark; it is called wienerbrød. By the way, this is not a danish but a cinnamon roll. Danishes here were amazing though.

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The Thai food here is AMAZING. Good ol’ comfort food for me.

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The Thai royal family with the Denmark royal family.

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beautiful fountains.

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Scientology; I wonder how it is received in Europe?

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Okay, I still can’t get over how pretty these colorful houses are; they are like those doll houses in storybooks! I wish I am a giant so that I can play with them!

The second time I roamed around, the city was even more beautiful, and this time we knew each other a little better. Just like any beautiful person, Copenhagen captivated you with even the smallest things; there were surprises everywhere. In the middle of the street, amidst busy Danes striding by, a musician played the violin. A man, carrying his guitar, hesitated and stopped, drunk in the swirling melody; he shook the musician’s hands after the performance and they shared a lovely conversation. I may not speak Danish, but that excited look on both men’s faces, as if they had found a long lost friend, spoke louder than any text that told me Danes are stereotypically cold.

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With music as their matchmaker, they turn from strangers to friends.

Another walk along the street during the day, a young guy approached and started a conversation …  in Chinese. I was so shocked that for a moment, I forgot that I spoke Chinese too; I just kind of stare back at him as he asked me questions with a keen smile. We talked and talked and we part ways. He somehow made me felt so very at home.

One time, I timidly asked a stern old lady for directions, prepared to be ignored; she immediately broke into a smile, lightening up her face like a ray of sunshine on a gray day. I couldn’t stop smiling myself.

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My heart is blooming. (Okay I am a hopeless romantic.)

It is very easy to feel like the outsider when studying abroad. You look different, you act different, and you talk different. A lot of times we just feel like sticking to the people we know and stay in our cozy little bubble. My advice is to think of the new place as someone you always wanted to get to know (I mean, if you are studying there you obviously are at least a little interested in her). For me that’s Amy Poehler. Get to know her work, read books about her, and talk to other people who have met her. Yes, it would be scary to approach her, but just imagine how great it would be to finally interact with her and bask in her endless awesomeness. I am screaming internally as I think about that; get psyched!

Don’t despair if you are not as outgoing as others, or as social as others; everyone has their own way to adjust to new surroundings, so just be yourself, and find people who like you as you are. Take your time to adjust, and then just walk out the doors and get lost!  (well, bring your GPS smart phone thingy. Or a map. Or a local phrase book with the sentences, “Where am I?” “How do I get back home.” Write down the address of where you are staying. Just… don’t turn off your brain.) Immerse yourself, take some risks, be safe but not too safe; life is short.

Yesterday when I was walking around, it suddenly dawned on me that I recognize that hot dog stand near my dorm. I can see, in my mind, Copenhagen and all her secret alleys, her cobblestone streets, her little coffee shops.

And that was the moment I felt my connection to the city. That was the moment Copenhagen starts becoming home.

P.S.: If you want a postcard, send me an email with your name and address and I will send my love and kisses from Copenhagen. If you are up to it, I can do a postcard chain, where I will send someone else’s name and address and you send them a postcard too. What do you think?

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Pretty, pretty please? My email is liang.is.my.lastname@gmail.com

P.P.S.: Next time on Josephine’s blog: what the hell am I doing in Denmark except getting lost? Stay tuned.

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Escaping to Europe

Hear O' Followers!

 

During finals week everything seems to be dominated by the
shadow of looming exams, so to truly relax during winter break I’ve been
recollecting on the blissful days of study abroad.

           

I think my bio mentions that I studied at Oxford last year.
But, that doesn’t really explain it all. The way I came to apply to Oxford is
strange enough:

 

Every Colby student is asked to fill out a preliminary
application to the Office of Off-Campus Study (OCS) so that the office can
begin to compile data of who is going abroad where, when, and for how long. To
many people’s astonishment, I wrote that I wanted to study at the University of
Hawai’i. (Yeah, it’s not technically abroad, but I’ve never been there… so it
would be a different experience. That counts, right?) But I received an E-mail
from OCS saying, “Michael, please schedule an appointment with us as soon as
possible.” When I finally met with an OCS representative, I was told that Colby
would let me go to Hawai’i, but not through OCS — i.e., not for credit. So I
said, “I’ll apply to Oxford then.” If anybody at Oxford is reading this: Yes,
you were my second choice to the State University of Hawai’i. (I just think I
can philosophize better on a beach)

 

But once I got to England, I found out quickly that Oxford
should have been my first choice. The city was beautiful and filled with old
buildings, old statues, and even older history. But walking through the
streets, I couldn’t help by laugh at how more than 80% of the population was
18-25 years old.

 

But why was abroad “blissful?” First, I didn’t have to take
any exams (or, as the Brits say, “sit exams”). Next, although I was writing at
least an essay every week, the topic was often “write anything on this topic.”
But the ultimate bliss of Oxford was the semester schedule. Oxford is on a
trimester schedule: 8-week terms followed by 8-week breaks. And since I despise
flying, I just took the train to Europe for my breaks. The food, the beer, the
people, the sights, and the travel! Because so many Colby students study abroad,
I traveled from one Colby friend to another: Salamanca, Paris, and Florence.
And when these epic breaks were over, I just returned to the quaint medieval
city with her “dreaming spires,” to study amid the gothic architecture and
700-year-old schools.

 

Oxford was an intense academic experience, but it’s hard to
concentrate on that part when I had so much fun tramping across Europe.

 

Snap back to reality. My daily view of the Radcliffe Camera
is now a view of the Chrysler Building. Happy and Sweet New Year.

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Mouit: Sama waa ker (mouit: my home)

My happiest three days in Senegal were spent in the fishing village Mouit, about thirty minutes outside of Saint Louis.

When we arrived we all sat on giant mats in the middle of a circle while the village elders greeted us. The chief and the imam both welcomed us in Wolof while our professor translated to French. Then one by one our names were called and our new moms walked us back to our new houses.

My mom's name was Mame Rama Diangne. She is absolutely the most joyous woman I have ever met. Even though we could barely communicate, we loved each other immediately because we both laugh and smile so much.  

In Mouit I had four little sisters and a little brother. I was overjoyed to have a full household, to put it lightly. I felt immediately welcomed by my family in a way I did not in Dakar. My sisters were Ami, 11, Rama, 12, Sofi, 14, and Hadi, 19. My little brother was Mouta and he was 7. I also had a half sister named Falou who is my age and we've been keeping in touch since I left.

Communication was challenging but incredibly fun. Most people in the village only spoke Wolof, but my two oldest sisters spoke comparable French to me, which was really nice. I picked up a ton of new vocabulary mostly centered around eating, and I got a lot better at listening to Wolof even if I didn't know how to respond. In general I just laughed and was laughed at a lot.

We were prepped for "rouging it" and some girls were worried about it, but it was very, very easy and comfortable. My family had a small concrete house within a pretty large sandy courtyard. They had an outdoor kitchen and a pick pen of goats and sheep outside. I slept in a room with my oldest sister on a mattress and although it was hot, it wasn't nearly the stifling heat of Pikine. The only discomfort of the weekend really was that I was dirty a lot and got eaten alive by mosquitoes. We were also prepared to eat bizarre foods, but I ate the best I have since I got here. I got to help prepare ceebu jen, the most popular dish in Senegal, which involved learning how to gut fish and cook rice. I went to the market in the morning with my mom and we got all of the ingredients for it right there. (The market in Mouit is nothing like a market in the city. It's all of the women in the village gossiping and trading together under two giant baobabs.) So I had amazing ceebu jen a couple times and this yougurt millet dish called larr all of the time…maybe too much because I always chose to eat what they gave me over being impolite. I got to drink cafe touba for breakfast every morning, which is REAL coffee with a ton of sugar and spices in it.

One day I watched two sheep get their throats slit and then I ate one of their stomachs, but the rest of that dish was really wonderful, so it was fine.

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Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.

Hi, my name is Clare and I’m a list maker. I know it's a problem, but it’s what I do.  While I’m at Colby, my weekly planner is my lifeline.  Each morning, I christen the box corresponding to that day with a list of things I will do before the sun creeps below the horizon of Mayflower Hill.  Each item, of course, has a box next to it that I relish in checking when the task has been accomplished.  I also have long-term lists, you know, things that I swear to myself I will accomplish before the end of the week, month, or even year.  I agree, it’s a little crazy. 

Now that I’m abroad in London, where I know I have a limited amount of precious time, I’ve been going a little overboard with the lists.  Opportunities abound!  There are dozens of museums I want to visit, scores of monuments, and about ten different day and weekend trips to plan.  And I’ve been trying to plan excursions to all of those historical sites and travel to all of those places, in addition to managing three classes and an internship. Needless to say, I have a lot going on.  Here’s an example of a list for a typical weekday:

-Attend class 9am -1 pm

-Run around perimeter of Hyde Park (about 5 miles!)

-Wade through the galleries at the Imperial War Museum

-Read a textbook chapter for European Capital Markets class

-Go pubbing with my “flatmates”

-Skype with my boyfriend, who is back at Colby

Do you notice anything strange about this list?  At first, I didn’t either.  But, after living this way for a few weeks, I realized that, despite scheduling almost every minute of my day, there were a few things I’d forgotten to pencil in.  For example eating, sleeping, and reading a pleasure book (the only thing that keeps me sane!), all important parts of the average person's day, are noticeably absent.  After a fortnight of living this way, I had become to feel a little run down, a little on edge. After re-evaluating my approach to study abroad, I’ve decided to cut down on the obsessive planning a bit.  I don’t think I could ever totally quit my habit of list making, but I think this is a valuable firststep. 

So a month (and countless awe-inspiring experiences) into the study abroad experience, the lesson I have learned is this: SLOW DOWN.  Everyone requires an hour or two a day of down time, to simply do something (or nothing) that puts them at ease.  Every minute of every day does not need to be dedicated to something constructive, per se.  Until the next time, cheers mate!

London Eye

 

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New friends and places

Asaalamalekum! I've been in Senegal for three weeks now, and I'm living in Point E, Dakar, in the same neighborhood as my school. My homestay mom is currently in Mecca leading a trip and she will be home soon. She runs a small health clinic that is on the bottom floor of my house. All of our families have maids here, which is very common for the middle class, and because my mom isn't home I mostly hang out with my family's maid. Her name is Nogaye, she's 21 and we're already great friends. We talk about things like boys, Facebook, clothes, Rihanna, MTV, dancing, family, university, Usher, America….she's very interested in what American teenagers do. She's also very patient with my French and waits for me to use my dictionary when I need to use it. Just the two of us eat dinner together every night, so it's kind of like living with a roommate. She took my friend Bailee and me to get our nails henna tattooed for Korite the other day in a crazy packed market.

Because my homestay family isn't around right now, I went with Nogaye to visit her family in Pikine for Korite, the giant party at the end of Ramadan. Pikine is a small town outside of Dakar, away from the bigger buildings, screeching taxis and smog. Her whole family only spoke Wolof so there was a lot of pointing and laughing involved, but somehow I still made friends. Everyone was just very interested in engaging in conversation with me and patient with our language barriers. One of Nogaye's friends named Osmene spoke french and we got to talk for a while about Senegalese politics and the poverty of Pikine. My French vocabulary is improving quickly even if my grammar is still questionable. I was fed constantly over the weekend, so I learned lots of Wolof vocabulary about food, eating, drinking. I "slept" on one mattress with three other girls and no fan and was woken each morning at 5am by chanting at the mosque across the street, but it was still wonderful.

Every night we all just stayed up absurdly late talking and drinking ataya (a very strong, very caffeinated tea) on the street. On the second morning I woke up to the loudest thunderstorm I have ever heard. It probably rained for about four hours but the entire outdoor courtyard and all of the roads were flooded immediately. Men were up to mid-thigh walking up and down the street. Everyone came out of their houses to watch or start using sandbags. We thought we would be stuck there for days but the water receded a little bit and we waded to dry land to take a taxi back to Dakar later in the day.
 
Definitely the best adventure of Senegal so far—a wonderful weekend of learning to communicate and connect and without language. This weekend I leave for a northern village called Mouit and I can’t wait to explore another part of the country.

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Missing Miller

I'm big on libraries. Maybe I read too many fantasy novels as a kid, but when people told me that libraries were magical portals that could transport you to other worlds, I used to take it semi-literally. Even now, I can recite my hometown library card number off the top of my head but frequently forget my credit card digits. (Yes, I'm aware that's pathetic.) The fact that Colby has three – three! – libraries at a school with only 1,800 students was a really big selling point for me.

The fact that I love libraries so much might be the main reason I can't wholeheartedly entertain thoughts of moving to Paris permanently after graduation. Because – as I remarked in a blog post during my time abroad last year – Parisian libraries are scary, scary places. Their librarians are not warm and fuzzy creatures who host library game nights (see pictures 22-26). They are those forbidding mothers you occasionally see on the playground, guarding their children like they are the Holy Grails of Toddlers. (You know the type: the mothers who only feed their children weird bits of algae, so that the bliss that is a warm chocolate chip cookie will forever be ruined for the kids' poor, delicate stomachs.)

These metaphorical children, of course, are the massive collections of archived documents and literature in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. I understand the paranoia, I really do. Those resources are amazing, and they should be kept safe and intact.

Still. 

Take this translated and abridged transcript of a conversation I had yesterday with a librarian. For context, I was searching for articles in two 19th century periodicals, part of my job as Professor Paliyenko's research assistant. I'd already visited one library in vain. At the next, I'd been sent back and forth between two desks so I could try and gain access to the special collections and make a photocopy. It seemed I'd finally found someone who could help me.

Me: Hello, Madame! I hope you can help me.

Librarian: (looks skeptical)

Me: (nervous laugh) See, I'm the research assistant to the head of the French department at a school in the United States. I'm trying to find this article… (I hold out the information; she stares disdainfully at my messy handwriting)

Librarian: Where is your documentation?

Me: My – documentation – oh, here's my passport, and my International Student ID Card, and my Colby student ID card, and…

Librarian: You do not have documentation?

Me: I thought from the website that this was what I needed to access -

Librarian: You need a signed official letter from the head researcher and a request form to have access to these archives. The request form must be filled out at least 48 hours before your arrival.

Me: I'm really sorry, I don't have a letter like that. If you need to see what my professor is writing about, I can show you the introduction to her book in progress? I have a printed version of it in my bag…

Librarian: That is not an acceptable form of documentation.

Me: Ah. Okay. Well, the problem is, I'm leaving the country in just a couple days, and I don't have access to a fax machine for my professor to send over a signed letter -

Librarian: Then I cannot help you, can I? (She turns back to her computer decidedly.)

See what I mean? TERRIFYING. And I'm not even transcribing the part where I kept trying to argue with her very politely and she gave me multiple looks of death. If I keel over for no apparent reason in the near future, you know who to blame.

Hm. Maybe the French government is secretly training new covert agents for state defense. If so, I know where they work by day.

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A Lesson in Survival of the Fittest

Far before I boarded the plane to Paris, my mother asked me something in the solemn kind of voice you usually expect from someone who wants to borrow money or needs help burying a body in the desert. “You’ll go to the Hermès sale with me, won’t you?” she requested, eyes wide. I laughed a little, amused by the dramatics, but nodded.

For those who don’t know Hermès, it’s a Parisian luxury goods and fashion house that sells things I never thought would have a three-digit price tag, like beach towels. Scarves are one of its specialties and are what interest my mother, an avid collector. For years, she’d dreamed about attending the mythical biannual Hermès sale in Paris. This January was her first opportunity.

And so, good little anthropology student that I am, here is an account of the first day of the January 2010 Hermès sale, alternately titled, “Gird Your Loins, They’re Bringing Out the Plissés.” (Plissé is a kind of scarf. Trust me, before last week, I knew nothing about them either.)

 

1/20/2010.

3:45am. My mother wakes me up, brimming over with nervous energy. Blearily, I drink two sips of the coffee offered to me and get dressed. As I put on a scarf that cost me 6 euro at a Parisian marketplace, I dimly register that I’m not quite Hermès’ target audience.

4:41am. We arrive at Porte Maillot, near the outskirts of Paris. It is still very dark. My mother pays our taxi driver, with whom she has just maintained a chipper conversation for our half hour drive. God knows I don’t have that kind of energy. Maybe I’m adopted.

4:43am. There are four other people here, lined up in the cold outside the building doors. The way my mom was talking, I was expecting hordes. Is matricide still illegal?

5:12am. There’s a veritable line now, and I forgive my mother for the early wakeup time. Because of it, we’re right up front. A security guard, regarding us like escapees from a mental facility, offers to open up the front doors half an hour early at 5:30, and points to the escalators upstairs where we’ll need to go. Then he returns to his guard dog, a Rottweiler who looks much less intimidating when playing catch.

5:14am. Oh dear, people around me are trying to make conversation in French. Maybe I should have drank more of that coffee.

5:31am. The front doors are opened. Mass pandemonium ensues. People in the back of the line start running to try and cut, and soon it’s a veritable stampede, a charging of the bulls up the escalator and to the next waiting area. My mother’s in the front-lines, her spot assured by an adolescence on the track team, so I hang back to help the security guard pick up some of the wreckage.

5:35am. Find my mother upstairs at the front of the line again. The first three women in line camped out here overnight. I feel much warmer toward my mother for not making me sleep in a tent.

5:49am. Boy, I really should have brought a book.

6:01am. Well. Lots of cracks in the ceiling. Let’s count the tiles now…

6:24am. Hermès fans know not to wear their scarves to the sale, as they’ll have to check them in with security, sucking up time to get to the best stock. Some seem slightly lost without them, like birds that have just lost their plumage. “I’ve been to every sale,” one pushy French woman says almost aggressively behind me. I grasp the message. I should be further ahead in line than you are.

7:05am. Security moves us in packs of ten to a better waiting area, with barricades set up to prevent people from cutting. This must be how sheep feel during those sheep dog herding demonstrations.

8:30am. Half an hour to go till opening! Everyone’s very awake right now and chattering excitedly. I keep spying on newcomers through a crack in the barricade. They have to go the end of the very, very long line, but they’re all holding coffee cups. Boy do I want their coffee.

8:45am. The guards let us check our coats and proceed to the next (and final) waiting area. My mother has already given me her coat and dashes forward with the rest as soon as she’s given the opportunity; I edge my way over to the coat check through the throngs.

8:46am. I remember a scene in The Poisonwood Bible where one of the daughters stuck her elbows out while caught in a human stampede. Her elbows out, she was lifted by the movement of those around her and avoided being trampled. Maybe I should try it.

8:47am. Silly me! I forgot pointy elbows are the weapon of choice around here; all I’d accomplish would be pain in my funny bone. A man behind me tries to argue his way to the front of the coat check – “I have a bag!” he says in English, and “Yeah, so do I!” I reply, holding up my own – and then pretends he doesn’t understand English after all, shoving in front of me in an entirely different kind of language.

9:04am. I enter the Hermès sale room. Hello, brave new world. I stand to the side with the Hermès salespeople, who are decked out in an orange that screams 'retail warrior.'

9:05am. My mother, who was among the first to enter, is also one of the first three to be helped at the shawls. There's a scuffle further back in the line as one woman grabs the shoulder of another woman to take her place; the shovee starts bawling. Does she have a shoulder injury?

9:15am. The woman is still sobbing. I’m starting to get the idea it’s due less to pain and more because she lost her place in line.

10:01am. As crowds simmer, social niceties make a comeback.

11:34am. Phase I: Grab and Go – is complete. Now it’s time for Phase II: Does This Alarming Shade of Orange Make Me Look Like I Have Jaundice? My mother carefully inspects the scarves for defects and makes her choices. It’s rather incomprehensible why Hermès uses so much orange and yellow in their scarves. Do they think people want to look like traffic cones?

11:59am. Still – looking at my mother’s orange-free final choices, there’s an undeniable, gorgeous artistry even I can see. I understand why she loves them so much. She’s practically glowing, thrilled with her finds. Others are starting to line up by the registers with their spoils, and the mood is utterly civilized again. Darwin would be proud.

12:45pm. We emerge into daylight, blinking. Some of the people around us have just started their day.

We go back to our apartment and nap.

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