Week 2 in Oxford

Paris! It’s such an amazing city! I was a bit scared at first because didn’t know any French, at all, and I knew even less about the city, but I had so much fun there!

Last Thursday we had a field trip to the Imperial War Museum for class, and so the other classmates that I was going to Paris with and I just stayed in London (at the same hostel I was in with my family friend) for the night. The next morning we were up bright and early to get on our 7am train to Paris. The trip was about 2 hours long, but because on the timezone change, we arrived at 10am local time. From there on, it was a flurry of activity, just like London. First we climbed up a hill to the Sacré-Cœur Cathedral, then we went to the Musée du Montmartre, afterwards we had lunch. At this point it was about 2pm so we went to check into our Airbnb in Paris, and let me just say, we luck out hard. The Airbnb was beautiful! It was high ceilings with chandeliers and frescos on the wall accompanied with antique furniture and there was even a claw foot peacock tub!

We were so amazed that we spent a good 30 minutes just relaxing before we took off once again and visited the shops around us. Later that night, we went to the Louvre and even thought we were there almost 4 hours, we barely scratched the surface of the treasures inside.

The next day I didn’t go with my classmates, instead I visited a friend! A couple years back my family had hosted a French exchange student, and we’ve kept in contact all this time, so when he heard I was going to be in France he made the trip to Paris to take me around. The day passed fast once again and we had a great time catching up. We went to the Pantheon and an art museum, and had lunch at a restaurant with his mom. We finished up at the Luxembourg Gardens, and after a farewell, he dropped me off at Champs-Élysées where I met up with the group and we headed back to the flat. However we weren’t there long, because just an hour later we were on our way to have a picnic by the Eiffel tower as the sun set. As I sat and watched the tower sparkle, I was really glad I had taken the trip instead of staying the whole weekend in Oxford.

On Sunday we had to check out of our amazing flat, then after leaving our luggage in the Gard du Nord, we went to Notre Dame, the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, then we had lunch, and we headed to Musée d’Orsay where we spent the rest of the afternoon looking at paintings.

That night we headed back to Oxford and ran into a fellow OU student while waiting for the bus. We really weren’t expecting to see him, but it was a delight. We arrived at about 12am today and after a quick shower, I went directly to bed.

Now that I’m back in my room I can relax and prepare for my last week here in Oxford. I really like it here so I’m sad to know it will all end so soon, but no matter, I’m going to enjoy the time I have left… And also finish my souvenir shopping!

Dinner by the Eiffel tower
At the Louvre

Final Day and Return

After the other Leadership Scholars left, I was left with all the international friends I’ve made this semester. Laurin, Kirsten, Alena, Deborah, Francesco, Myrik…the beginning of the end for our group had already begun. People were moving on every two or three days. The day before Laurin left, who if I’m being honest was kind of the glue holding us together. We all met under a bridge, where we actually hung out a lot, and spent a few hours just talking. It was nice. I can’t understand how much I grew to like these people in such a short span of time, and I can’t believe how integral they were to my study abroad experience. I gained so much confidence just by being around them and I learned so much about so many different cultures. I can’t believe how much I’m going to miss not only them but all the experiences I never would have normally participated in, let alone enjoyed. I really do owe them so much, and I’m never going to forget what it was like to be a part of a group so alike in one way, and so different in all others.

Two days before my flight back to America, I convinced my parents to be cool for once and they dropped their policy of financial manipulation and allowed me to get a tattoo as a souvenir. I called Carole, my “godmother,” for our last outing together. She came with me to one of the highest rated salons de tatouage in Clermont, just to make sure that nothing was lost in translation. The tattoo artist was super nice, and incredibly attractive. He was very accommodating, and he resized it a few times to make sure I got it as small as I wanted. It was quick, painless, and surprisingly silent—he has a special gun that’s quiet. I got a fleur-de-lis behind my right ear. I like it a lot. My goodbye to Carole was just as nice, and again, I can’t believe how lucky I was to have her during this semester. She’s a friend that I know I will keep in contact with. That’s amazing.

Unfortunately, my return to the U.S. was not amazing, it was…hectic. I’d spent the week leading up to my departure packing up all non-essentials and throwing away things that I didn’t need: food, certain toiletries, old papers. Still, the morning that I was to head to the airport in Clermont, I had to carry several trash bags full of things that were still technically useful down to the dumpsters—which made me feel wasteful. The day before my father had asked me to take a cutting of a plant so that he could have “proof that he went to France, through me” (weird, and a little self-serving but I guess I could understand). The biggest problem was getting all my bags down in one fell swoop. Since I’d been in Clermont for 6-months, I had two large suitcases, a duffel bag, a backpack, and a purse—all of which were full to the brim. Somehow, I did it, and then I faced my second biggest challenge: making sure that the accueil knew to do my inspection so that I could get my £247/$320 deposit back. The woman was someone I’d never seen before, meaning she was new…which explains why over a month a later I still have yet to receive my deposit.

I was early to the airport, which meant I had time to have breakfast. That was the easiest part of the entire journey. I got to Charles De Gaul Airport in Paris and was cut in line by a group of large women from Georgia (the state, not the country) while waiting to board. I had my duffel bag, which weighed about 50 lbs., and my backpack, which weighed about 20 lbs. They pretended they didn’t see me and just pushed past me, which was rude but I wasn’t in the mood to cause a scene. The flight to the Atlanta airport was long, and exhausting—only because of my seatmates. I was in the middle seat, and the boy to my left was the son of the woman to my right. They constantly talked across me and the boy, who was at least 18 years old, went to the bathroom a minimum of 6 times in the span of 7 hours. The flight attendant fed us about 4 times, and each meal was worse than the last. When we landed, I knew I was still one flight away from my destination, but I was relieved to be on US soil again.

It wasn’t so much that I “missed” the United States. There are a lot of things that I found I liked better in Europe, but there was an entire layer of anxiety that evaporated when I landed, mostly the language thing. I knew that I wouldn’t be confused or tricked or anything by customs or other airport staff. I went through customs and it wasn’t as stressful as I thought it would be. It was just a relief to be able to go through a tedious, potentially complicated, bureaucratic situation without a language barrier—without that need to anticipate questions and practice responses in my head before getting to the desk. I lugged my wares to the other side of the airport and collapsed into a seat. With regards to tickets, boarding, and luggage, everything had gone relatively smoothly until my final flight from Atlanta to DFW. The flight was delayed on the ground by 1 hour, and then once we were in the air we were interrupted by the wordy flight attendant six or seven times to tell us that we’d be delayed an additional 45-minutes.

It was all worthwhile, though, once I got to baggage claim. My family was there, with a sign that said “(Welcome) Back by Popular Demand.” As bad as this sounds, my family was another thing that I didn’t know I missed so much. While I was gone, I was distracted by how foreign and new everything was. But once I saw my sister and my brother, my mom and my dad, I realized that they’d truly been on the other side of the world from me for over six months, and I realized how much I missed being able to call them without waking them up or vise-versa, how much I missed being able to hug the people who loved me most. I’m not ashamed to say I cried, my mom and sister cried (he would never admit it but so did he) and people all around us were watching our reunion.

I’m glad to be home, but now that I’ve been back a while I’m noticing that I’m missing things from France also. I’m living with my parents for the summer and going from the freedom of being treated like an adult in all ways in Europe to being restrained by US laws and my parents is a bit of a shock for me. I miss my friends, it seems like there was always something to do or someone to hang out with. Now, I’m back in Texas and really none of my friends live here anymore, so I’m alone most of the day—back to watching mindless television or playing videogames. I even miss being able to walk places to get things; for a while, in Clermont, it was a hassle. If I wanted anything I knew I’d have to expend a certain amount of energy (mentally, because of the language, and physically, because of the walking); now I don’t really have an excuse to leave the house or get any exercise.

I think I’d go back to France someday. I know I will, I might even move there some day. But for now, I think that I need to keep the spirit that I found in France and bring it to my life here in the United States. I need to be open to going out and spending time with people, and not be a solitary homebody like I was before; I need to be open to trying new things, eating new foods, going to new places instead of living in my comfort zone. I think that that’s the biggest lesson I learned from living in France—I’ve always been theoretically open-minded, but I’ve never put those theories into the simple things: having a drink with a group of friends, going to a new restaurant, purposely getting lost just to see what I find. I’m glad that I’ve had this experience. It sounds corny, because I always knew that there was more than one way to live life, but I really did have move to the other side the world to find out there are other ways for me to live.


Withow Leadership Scholars

One of the best times that I’ve had in France was—ironically—with a bunch of Americans. I belong to an on-campus group at OU called the Withrow Leadership Scholars, which is housed under the College of Arts and Sciences. Before I went to France, I knew that the group would be arriving in Clermont at the end of the semester. It seemed convenient when I applied, but I had forgotten to consider my final exams. It took forever for my professors to get the exam schedule to us, and unfortunately (but unsurprisingly), there was a conflict.

The LS group was scheduled to spend the first few days in France in Paris, and I was determined to go. Despite having spent nearly six months in France, I had only spent a total of six hours in Paris. And that was not enough time to truly enjoy the place. I’d seen the base of the Eiffel Tower, and Notre Dame’s façade, and that was all. The final day in Paris was also the first day of my exams, which meant I’d have to get back to Clermont overnight if I was going to have the best of both worlds. After a lot of back and forth between Rhonda Kyncl and my primary professor, Elodie, with me acting as the liaison, I was able to book my tickets and meet my group in Paris.

The very first day we met up, with everyone arriving at different times. It took the better part of the day for everyone to arrive. In the meantime, we spent some time in the plaza near Notre Dame. But once the entire group arrived, we were all checked into our hotels—I was staying at the historic Normandy Hotel with two other girls whom I’d never met before but who were actually very nice. Then we followed our guide, Christophe, who lives in Clermont but met with us in Paris because he was one of the first French students to come to OU in the 90’s under the university exchange program, to the subway. We disembarked in front of an unassuming restaurant, and I walked in, laughing and joking with my new friends. Little did I know that I was in for the best meal of my life.

Our donor had rented out “La Petite Chaise” and paid for a four-course dinner for our entire group of 26 people. It turned out that “La Petite Chaise” is the oldest restaurant in Paris, and it had been established in 1610. As I had a spirited political debate with the only member of our group who was a Trump supporter, one of our group members pointed out how amazing it was that we were having political debates in a place where hundreds of political debates must have occurred, in dozens of languages, over nearly 400 years. We all got quiet after that and just thought about it. I was also just so grateful to even be a part of this—I was only able to participate in something so great, so timeless and yet new, and so delicious because someone saw something worthwhile in me and chose me to be a part of this organization.

The other best parts of Paris for me were the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay—two historic art museums that house some of the most beautiful, most awe-inspiring, and most influential works in the world. I’m the kind of person who shamelessly cries at art. It’s just overwhelming to think that someone created something so aesthetically pleasing—or in some cases, so meaningful—that their own generation and generations thereafter just felt compelled to preserve it, to admire it, and to encourage others to admire it. Even though I was happy to have made new friends in my group, they weren’t really conducive to my having my transcendent experience in the Louvre. We all had certain works that we wanted to see, and we argued about the best way to get to most of everything that everyone wanted to see within the allotted time. Some people’s desired exhibits were closed, which was a little frustrating, because the Louvre is freaking huge. There’s no eloquent way to impart how big the Louvre is. You could probably spend a week in there and still not see everything.

It didn’t matter, though, because although I didn’t get to stand in one place contemplating the timeless aspect of beauty and poignancy for ten to twenty minutes, I did get to experience with my own eyes some of the most amazing works of art in history and the world, including the Mona Lisa (which was horribly crowded and a little frustrating to get to), and later, in the Musée d’Orsay various works of Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh is my favorite artist, even though I couldn’t truly enjoy Vincent’s Starry Night or self-portrait because my feet were hurting so badly from the trek in the Louvre.

After that, my new friends and I went for lunch in a little alley near Notre Dame, and found a Reggaeton/Latino club in the heart of Paris! —which was interesting to me and exciting for two of our group members, both of whom are of Latino heritage. We went back to the hotel for a quick nap, mostly because we were full but also because the sun was so draining, and then we went back to the Latin club with a few other members of our group. We were the loudest, most enthusiastic dancers in the place, and we had a lot of fans. “Grinding” is not a thing in Europe, so we were sort of the “naughty” Americans for dancing on each other. It was funny, and entertaining for us and for the others in the small bar/pub. Despite our need to wake up early in the morning for a hop-on/hop-off bus tour of Paris, we stayed out late. My feet were killing me again, so even though we were only twenty minutes from the hotel by foot, I hailed a cab and took whoever wanted to ride with me.

After another day in Paris, with great food and a good time with friends, I had to leave a day early because of my finals. In fact, for the next week I had to miss several activities with LS. They took a walking tour of Clermont, wherein the history of several areas that I’d been walking by for months was given by the tour guide—I had an exam. They hiked the Puy-de-Dome and went to a Renaissance fair—I had an exam. They got to go to this bouncing/climbing warehouse—I had yet another exam. Luckily, I didn’t really feel like doing most of that stuff anyway. By the time I had finished my finals, the fun had begun.

The day that I finished my final exam, I ran back to the dorm to meet my group. They’d stalled the bus for me, and I was grateful because that was the first of a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that would span over the rest of the time that the LS was in Clermont. We first went to the Michelin Museum, which I thought would be boring, but turned out to be interesting as well as informative. I was so pleasantly surprised that I bought a t-shirt to commemorate it. From there, we boarded the bus again and drove out of town. I hadn’t been privy to the conversations wherein our itinerary had been detailed the day before, on account of my tests, so I had no idea where we were going. But I was certainly not expecting to pull up to a castle.

A short man, who turned out be the owner of the castle, met us at the end of the long walkway. He bought the property back when it was practically a ruin but has since spent an unfathomable amount of money restoring it to its former glory. He invited us in, and I took a ton of pictures of us just walking up to the ancient structure. I was lucky enough to be seated at the table with both Rhonda and our host, and we were then served a delicious lunch by actual butlers, complete with coattails and gloves. He served us wine from his family’s winery and ensured that the Muslims in our group were served halal meat or no meat at all. He was incredibly accommodating as well as accomplished, and even though he could be long-winded at times I learned a lot. For example, during the tour of the castle—after coffee on the terrace—I learned that this castle was owned by Catherine de Medici, who married into the French royal family and whose son eventually wed Mary, Queen of Scots. It was honestly amazing to be able to actually walk around in such a place. As someone who loves history, it was honestly an experience that I can’t even begin to consider how to replicate.

The second once-in-a-lifetime experience that I owe to the Withrow Leadership Scholars was being able to have brunch with the mayor at the hôtel de ville, or townhall, of Clermont-Ferrand. The LS were not the only OU students to attend—Global French Global France was there as well, and I believe a group of engineering students also. We got flutes of champagne, little nibbles such as “roulettes,” and several photo ops. In what world would someone as ordinary as myself every get the opportunity to be able to do something like this again.

Thirdly, I was able to go to Lyon with my group and stay in a very nice hotel for about three days. This is not really a “one-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, since I could always take a trip to Lyon—eventually. But it was certainly the only way that I was going to be able to visit Lyon during my study abroad semester, since I spent much (well, more honestly, most) of my money on going to Porto for my last our-of-country side trip. To be honest, I’d never thought much about Lyon as a travel destination, but I’ll never make that mistake again. It was hands-down my favorite city in France. I could almost live there; I could definitely retire there. It had lots of shops, lots of activities, lots of historical sites—like Paris, without the anxiety; but it was relaxed without being boring, unlike Clermont, which is one of the sleepiest towns I’ve ever visited. It was amazing: I went shopping, climbed a hill to a basilica, ate delicious street food. Lyon was a dark horse, I didn’t think I’d fall in love with it, but I did, and I can’t wait to go back.

The final activity that the LS group engaged in with our tour guide, and with our entire group (many of us had made separate travel arrangements to other countries or back to the U.S.) was a tasting of the Auvergne region’s cheeses, breads, and most importantly, wines. We met on a Friday morning, took the bus to a banlieue, a suburb, of Clermont. It turns out that Christophe’s parents have a wine cellar, and his father was all too happy to share his collection of Auvergne wines with us. We had reds, whites, rosés—and because we were underground in a 13th century wine cellar, none of us even noticed the fact that we were getting hammered in the morning. Thanks to my studies, I got to participate in conversation with Christophe’s parents—who spoke little to no English and laugh with Rhonda—who is now allowed to drink wine thanks to her recent conversion to Catholicism and take selfies with my friends despite the horrible lighting.

We wandered back to the bus around noon, laughing and generally being a nuisance. Thankfully we were in France, so being wine-drunk in the morning is not terribly frowned upon.

The Withrow Leadership Scholars is a group that I applied to on a whim, with no expectation of actually getting in. But I think that it was the jewel in the crown of my study abroad experience. I was mildly concerned that I would lose all my new-found self-confidence once I was back on U.S. soil. But the “preview” of having two weeks with the other members of LS was enough to convince me that this wasn’t just a six-month fluke. That I really have grown into myself during my time away from home, and even though it’s nearly time to go home, I am more secure in who I am. It took a trip to the other side of the world, but I found myself.


Mid-Week 2 Oxford

I returned from London two days ago, and the feelings this week are different than the last. When I fist got here, I was anxious to go out and see as much as I could, to go to all the museums and landmarks so I wouldn’t miss anything. However, this week is more relaxed. London was constant movement, but here in Oxford I can concentrate on my classes, sit in my room and enjoy the breeze while I do my homework. I still go out and walk around town, but instead of feeling like I’m running out of time, I’m just really happy to be here, literally attending the infamous college of Oxford. So I’m a little sad to be leaving for Paris over the weekend, because of the calmness that I feel in Oxford. I can visit Paris any other time in my life, but when will I be able to stay in Brasenose as a student ever again?

The Radcliffe Camera outside Brasenose
The view from the New Quad

Bordeaux (Again) and Porto, Portugal

I was really under-informed about how many vacation/holidays there are in France. Maybe I should have done more research, but if I had known that the French got so many “religious” holidays wherein we didn’t have class, I would have saved more money and taken way more side trips. As it was though, the final holidays of my Spring semester sort of snuck up on me. It wasn’t until Ariel tried to plan a trip with me (which I suspect she only did because Madison was going to Paris with her boyfriend) that I realized it was our last opportunity to go out of town. Since we had German friends, we planned to go to Munich. But that turned out to be insanely expensive. Then we planned to go to Budapest, or Prague, but the timing wouldn’t work out for lodging or air travel. Finally, we settled on Porto, Portugal. But Ariel had never been to Bordeaux. So we first planned to spend a day there, and fly to Porto from the Bordeaux Airport, which would be much cheaper than trying to fly out of the smaller Clermont Airport.

We took a Flixbus to Bordeaux, and I’d texted Leo and Isabelle to let them know that I was fulfilling my promise to visit one more time before going back to the U.S. Unfortunately, it was a little short notice for Leo, who was working outside the city and couldn’t get a day off in time to come see me. But Isabelle was all too happy to meet us and show us around the city.

Ariel and I arrived in Bordeaux right on schedule, and found our AirBnB, which was much cheaper than we expected it to be for such a great location. Our hosts were kind, showed us to our room and even pointed out a few good restaurants in the area. We put our bags down and set out to meet Isabelle. After a little confusion about a meeting place, we finally met up with her. She hugged me for a long time, and I felt grateful for how kind she was and how willing to treat me as her own. She also hugged Ariel and complemented her on her Canadian accent when Ariel introduced herself in French. Then she led us down the street, asking us how our studies in Clermont were going and about my family and how Ariel was liking France. We were supposed to meet up with her son Hugo, Leo’s little brother, because Isabelle was a little self-conscious about her English and she was always wanting to accommodate us—even though we were in France to learn French, as I tried to explain.

Hugo was late, but when he arrived they led us across the river to a part of Bordeaux that was once housing for the army, or training grounds (the scenario for the army being there was unclear, lost in translation) but was now a place for hipster restaurants, gyms and most interestingly, a graffitied skatepark. They led us in and out of the holes which once held doors and windows, and we climbed over ramps and leapt over puddles as we admired the colorful paintings in all their different styles. As we crawled around the wooden area behind the abandoned barracks, Hugo told us that they were tearing down the area to make room for new buildings and businesses. Even as we emerged, a security guard stopped us, yelling at us that “Ce lieu est interdit”—basically, we were not allowed to be there. Isabelle, our supposed adult supervision, laughed and told us to run. When we made it back to the main street, they asked if we were hungry.

Hugo had to leave, to meet with one of his friends, but Isabelle took us to her favorite kebab shop in the city. We ate, then she led us around some of the more famous parts of the city and gave us the history behind each building, statue, and area. Much of it, I had already heard from Leo the first time around, but it was all new to Ariel. We came to a glacier, an ice cream shop, which Isabelle said was Leo and Hugo’s favorite when they were kids. She bought us both two scoops, and we continued the tour. By the time we finished out ice cream we’d wandered far from our AirBnb, and far from where Isabelle had parked the car. She took us to the nearest tram stop, told us where to get off closest to our lodgings, and told me that she loved me and wanted me to visit her again soon. I told her that if she ever wanted to visit Texas or Oklahoma, I’d do my best to be as good a tour guide as she was.

The next day we wandered around the city, not really knowing where we were going or doing but having seemingly endless time to kill before our flight at 4pm. In the plaza closest to our AirBnb there was a flea market. I’ve noticed this all over France, that there are markets where people sell anything and everything, every Sunday. Fruits, vegetables, clothes, jewelry, bread, cheese even pets—chickens, rabbits, cats and dogs. We wandered around there for a while, Ariel was looking at teacups and saucers, and I was talking to a man from Cameroon. He had a set of 5 elephants carved from dark wood and in descending sizes on his table, and my mother collects elephants. They are literally all over our house, and I thought that it would be a great souvenir for her. The man said he’d carved the elephants himself, he could have been lying but he was willing to haggle. I got three—one to represent each of us: me, my brother, and sister—and we continued on our way.

We then went to the cathedral, to the old Roman theater, and to a community garden. We packed our things a little early, mostly because we were out of things to see and out of things to talk about. We had wandered around looking for a place for lunch before going back to the room, but we finally decided on a pizza place down the street from the AirBnb. It was run by two young guys, they had a great playlist going of new artists playing old styles like jazz and blues. It was literally the best pizza I have ever had. I know that the most annoying thing for friends and family of people who have traveled abroad is for them to always bring up some unattainable superlative form of food or drink they “discovered” on the other side of the world…but I will compare every pizza from now until the end of time to that pizza.

From there we walked to the bus station, which had a shuttle to the airport. We were early for our flight, by a lot, which turned out to be irrelevant. Isabelle texted me right at the time that our flight was meant to leave, wishing us safe travels. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed…by several hours. We waited around forever, and neither the airport nor the airline gave us any indication of when we were meant to be leaving. After a nearly 4-hour delay, we were able to board and take off. Our flight was to Lisbon, Portugal, and from there we had a flight to Porto. When we landed in Lisbon we had just enough time for a disappointing meal in the airport before our new connecting flight to Porto.

Originally, we were supposed to arrive around 8pm, enough time to find dinner in our vacation spot. After all the delays, we arrived around 12:30 am. We found our hostel with ease, and checked in. Which was frustrating, because the manager spoke no English and we didn’t speak any Portuguese. Finally, we got settled and had to sneak into the all-girls dorm while everyone was asleep. Of course, only top bunks were left so not only did we have to put our stuff in the lockers in the dark, but we also had to climb a bed whilst some other unfortunate girl was sleeping in the bottom bunk. I had trouble with the lock on the drawer, which was under the bottom bunk. Eventually, the girl in that bed helped me—which turned out to be a great thing.

Finally, after the worst travel experience to date, I was able to sleep.

The next morning, I met the girl in the bottom bunk who had helped me the night before. Her name was Cícera, she was Brazilian, and she spoke a little English. The hostel served breakfast, so Ariel and I met her downstairs. I apologized to her for waking her up and thanked her for helping me with the locked drawer. She asked me and Ariel where we were from, and why we were in Portugal. We told her that we were studying in France, and that we were on vacation. She told us that she was just on a tour of Europe, and that this was her last stop before returning to her job in Brazil. She told us that it was her last day and invited us to spend the day in the city with her. And I was grateful to meet her, because even though a lot of people speak English in Europe, it was nice to meet someone who spoke Portuguese. She was able to tell us a lot of the history of Portugal, and its long, checkered history with her home country, most of which I never knew.

Portugal in easily one of the mostly underrated countries of all time. The weather is perfect, the people are friendly, and the buildings are spectacular. Most spectacular in my opinion was the church that was not far from our hostel. It was situated on a precipice right in the middle of the city, so there was a balcony with a fantastic view of the rest of Porto right outside the church. We spent a fair amount of time right outside the church taking selfies and photos. Inside the church, the walls, floors, ceilings, paintings and statues were covered in gold—much of which was taken from South America and Africa during colonization. It gave me a strange feeling, admiring the beauty that came from an indubitably dark period for someone—obviously it was kind to the Portuguese. After the church, we wandered around downtown and eventually came to a street that is famous for its prolific graffiti. Some of the paintings were gorgeous of course, but some were just…odd. We had a little difficulty deciding what to do next, so we wandered around some more, telling each other about our home countries. Before we knew it, we had wandered to the river, and Cícera read the sign on the side of building advertising boat tours. The English sign was in the front, and it turned out that they offered much more than that.

The tour guide at the front desk told us that we could pay a little extra and get a tour of the port wine cellar on the other side of the river as well as a boat cruise. There was a tasting after the tour, so we decided to shell out the extra cash and then made our way across the bridge. The walkway was narrow but the sun glinting off the water was beautiful. When we got to the museum/wine cellar it turned out that the office from which we’d purchased our tickets had called to alert the museum of our arrival. They gave us an English tour guide, and we were accompanied by an older couple who were originally from the United States, but emigrated to Canada in the December 2016, for reasons “they didn’t want to get into.” I don’t know why they bothered to say that, since we all knew they moved to escape Trump but whatever. We had great conversation, for a group of people who didn’t know each other very well. Because it was so horribly hot that day, we decided not to get too drunk so that we wouldn’t be dehydrated. After the wine tour, we had a little time to kill before our boat tour, so we decided to get some lunch by the river.

There were all sorts of restaurants on the bank: simple ones, fancy ones, and very fancy ones—all right next to each other. We also passed several vendors selling shades, t-shirts, homemade jewelry, leatherworks, and textiles. We wandered through the pop-up market for a while, before heading into one of the less-fancy restaurants that was still nice enough to have “menu”—which is like several courses in one price—for about 11 euros. I had the best chocolate mousse for dessert, and since the restaurant was upstairs, we had a beautiful view of all the multi-colored buildings built in to the cliff on the other side of the river. During lunch, Cícera told us about her friends who had immigrated from Brazil to Portugal for college. They had planned a beach day and she invited us as well. We agreed, even though we hadn’t planned to go to the beach, so we didn’t have our swimsuits actually with us. I would come to half-heartedly regret this decision, as I ended up getting sand in my jeans, which remained for weeks.

We went on the boat tour, and it was by far my favorite experience up until that point. The speakers were playing Portuguese folk music, and there’s something comforting about listening a song in a language you don’t speak. You can just experience and enjoy the human voice, the instruments, and the feeling of just engaging you senses and being alive. The boat ride offered one of the rare experiences wherein you’re perfectly aware of your existence but not really thinking about it too hard—just hard enough to appreciate that you have the senses and capabilities to truly participate in the fabric of the world. I could see the water, and where it fed into the ocean and I thought about how incredible it is to be so small and partake in something as large as the earth and its oceans; and I saw the bridges built across the river (all from different time periods as they found better ways of engineering life around this force of nature) and the buildings built into the sides of cliffs, churches and mosques, homes and businesses, and the determination and fortitude of humanity just sort of overwhelmed me. All this plus the beautiful music coming through my headphones, I just remember thinking: “People worked incredibly hard to build these bridges, these walls to contain the river, these houses hundreds of feet up a cliffside. They worked hard to evolve and be able to accomplish something as mundane as a riverside civilization, just so they could exist next to all this beauty. And that makes humans the simplest and most sophisticated creature there is.” We’re an impressive species.

We disembarked from the boat on the other side of the river. And from there, Cícera said we’d have to walk nearly 3 miles to the beach. She said it like it was nothing, but to Ariel and me, it was unthinkable. During this semester, I’ve really learned how little we as North American walk. I mean, we really drive everywhere. And I also learned how even though most large European cities have much better public transportation systems than the U.S., people are really more willing to walk than use any other form of transport. Normally, I don’t mind so much, but there were two flaws in the plan: the sun was shining as though it had some vendetta against us, and the walkway the Cícera led us to was over the river.

There nothing to be done about the sun, but the walkway that she had chosen was not solid. It was a metal grate suspended over the river. There were no poles holding it up, it was bracketed to the road (which was on solid ground). We were at least 50 yards above the river, and while I normally don’t have a problem with heights, I did not like seeing the river flowing beneath my feet. I figured that it couldn’t go on too long, so I decided to suck it up and follow Cícera and Ariel. But by the time I realized that the suspended walkway was about 1 mile long and I was going to have to have anxiety the whole time, we were already halfway across. I had no choice but to stick it out and hold my breath. It was honestly horrible but clearly, I didn’t die, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

We waited in the heat for Cícera’s friends and then took the bus to the beach. It really was a beautiful day, and even though we weren’t dressed for the beach, we still made new friends and got to see the Atlantic from the other side of the world. And to me, that was well worth that infernal sand in my pants.






Week 1 in Oxford

This first week has been great! I got here in Sunday around 9, but check in wasn’t until 2, so I spent the day with some classmates exploring the city. At first you just admire the architecture, but then it hits you that you are surrounded by buildings hundreds of years old. In fact we found out that Oxford was founded way before the Americas were discovered!

On Monday I was still jet-lagged but I still went around the city and just settled in. I tried really hard to stay awake the whole day so I would sleep at night and adjust my schedule, but before lunch I was just so tired I had to take a nap. Later I realized that was a good decision because I went with my group to an epic scavenger hunt that had us walking all around the city just to end up in a beautiful restaurant right by the Thames. It took about 2 hours to get there and 1 to get back, that night I fell asleep immediately despite of my earlier nap.

Tusday was my first day of class and it was really interesting. I’m taking the Great War and 20th century history, and being in a country that was deeply affected by the conflict gives a whole new meaning to what I’m learning. Later that day I went shopping for souvenirs right around Brasenose, but at 3 I went with some OU students to London to see Hamlet at the Globe! We had bought the tickets while we were still in the U.S. so we were excited to see it, but as fate would have it, traffic was so bad by the time we made it to London it was 7:30 and we were too late to get our tickets. Yet we made the best of our situation and went around the city for a bit before heading back to Oxford.

On Wednesday, for breakfast, we had a special treat which was pain-au-chocolat. Its a very simple pastry with two chocolate sticks in it but it’s really delicious. After class, I went to a museum with my roommate and some other classmates. It was the Ashmolean, which had an impressive collection of artifacts, paintings, and jewelry.

Thursday was the last class for the week and we started watching the film Joyeux Noel, which was about the Christmas truce of 1914 between the German soldiers and the Allies. Unfortunately we only got half way through when class ended, so I have to wait until next Tuesday to finish watching it. After class we had lunch and once again we spent the day exploring the city, but that afternoon was the England v. Croatioa soccer match for the World Final, and so to experience it like locals we went to a nearby pub and had fish and chips as we watched the game. Sadly, even though England had a good start, they lost the match.

On Friday I went to London again to really get to know it and I’ve spent the weekend here with a family friend. We’re staying at a hostel and it feels like every moment we’re awake we’re just walking to a new museum or location. However, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m getting to see so much here in London and every day is an adventure, whether we are navigating the Tube or discovering Tower Bridge. Tomorrow I’m going to drop of my friend at Heathrow and head back to Oxford, ready for my second week.

Arriving at Heathrow
Making the best of having missed the performance of Hamlet
With my family friend in the Chelsea Physic Gardens in London

Dark Times

I know I was warned about this—“culture shock” that could manifest itself as depression, even though I know that I have a history of feeling “blue.” I think I’m depressed now, or maybe I’m just homesick. I mean I feel like doing what I’m supposed to be doing is draining me, and there’s no excitement in the day, even though I’m on the other side of the world. Everything just feels drab, and it’s not like I don’t know what I need to do. I just can’t really bring myself to do it. I just end up talking myself out of it.

I’ve already had a brief spell of depression, I didn’t go to class for about three days. No real reason, I wasn’t sick. I was just…tired. And I couldn’t sleep enough, even when I would first wake up, I just felt too tired to force myself to go through the motions of preparing for the day, let alone actually facing the day.

Maybe this is culture shock. I mean, when I get depressed in America, I just have to eventually find the willpower to make up an excuse to go outside. Even if it’s just to go to 7-Eleven for an ICEE, or to a fast-food restaurant for dinner—rather than ordering in. In fact, I’ve been known to just not eat, rather than going to buy groceries or even leaving my room to go to the kitchen, lest I run into one of my roommates. Once I do that, I can start to fix myself. But here, there’s the extra layer of language and cultural barriers that makes staying in my tiny room much more appealing than trying to go out for any reason.

I’m not a bad student, but I’ve always been prone to times like this. It’s just never seemed as dire, I guess. At OU, sometimes I take a mental health day. Professors are usually understanding, and I can always catch up. But here the system is different, so even though I’m trying but can’t force myself to care, missing one day could be a catastrophe. Especially because all my credits here have to survive the journey back to the University of Oklahoma.

Writing about it helps. I mean it doesn’t make me want to run off to class, but the mental shackles keeping me here in my little room are getting a little lighter.

The thing is I don’t want to be a disappointment. It’s one of my biggest fears. And missing class is disappointing. But I just can’t go there right now. I’m sitting here writing about how much I need to go and I simply can’t force myself to move. It’s like I tell my brain to tell my body to get ready for class, and my brain has decided to switch off its walkie-talkie and ignore me—the message just never gets to my limbs. Part of me is pissed off about it, and part of me is secretly relieved that there was a breakdown in communication because even though it’s something I need to do, I just can’t fathom doing it. Not today.

I wish depression came with a schedule. “You will feel like staying in bed from March 10th to the 15th, then you’ll feel a little better, please plan your week accordingly.” But no. I don’t know if later today I’ll be braver and be able to con myself into going to my afternoon class, or if tomorrow I’ll wake up ready to face to face the day instead of ignoring it. And that’s a little hard to plan for.

I think that part of the problem is that even when I’m not depressed class is a little tedious. I know it’s a new system in a new country, and I like some of it. I dislike the way the classes are taught (all group work), that the classes are chosen for you and that they last two hours at least. Sometimes it’s fun. But right now, the exhaustion of just being alive is making the part that should be the easiest—simply going to class—the most difficult. It’s like the cons (showering, getting dressed, brushing my teeth) weigh as much as a small elephant sitting on my feet, and the pros (enjoying France, seeing my friends in class, improving my French) are as light as feathers, floating in my peripheral vision.

I’ve never been one to harm myself, but I’m prone to self-neglect. I don’t even really have the energy to write this journal, but it’s helping. I know I’ll feel better, it’s just a matter of when.


Saying Goodbye- 7 July 2018

Well, I’m sitting on the plane waiting for my flight to leave for Dallas and trying to come to terms with the fact that my month and a half in Spain is actually over. The time passed so much quicker than I expected, and it’s going to be really hard for me to leave the place I feel like I was just starting to get to know. I’ve met so many wonderful people and seen so many places that I had only dreamed I would be able to visit.

Part of me is ready to be back to my routine and my normal food and habits and the people from back home that I’ve been missing. But right now that part is buried under the sadness that comes from leaving friends I’ve only just met, a new family here that treated me like one of their own, and a country that is full to overflowing with beauty and a rich, diverse culture. This experience has truly been unforgettable and studying in Alcalá has impacted me in a big way. If I ever have the chance to come back, believe me when I say I will not hesitate to hop on the plane.

Now we’ve taken off, and I don’t want to take my eyes off the window. I can’t believe this is the last view I’m going to get of Spain.

Maybe my heart feels so heavy because of all of the pieces of this trip that I’m carrying home with me.