The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 2

I am a strong believer in only eating all-natural foods. Artificial coloring, preservatives, even so-called “natural” flavors are big no-nos with serious health effects. I’m didn’t just jump on a health-food bandwagon; there is real science that shows our bodies aren’t designed to handle all those chemical additives. Organic food is what humans evolved to eat; all those extra unpronounceable ingredients really do cause cancer and neurological disorders and all other sorts of problems, and yet here in America we gobble them down without a second thought. Organic and all-natural options are hard to find and usually come with a hefty price tag.

Fresh Milk Machine in Ljubljana
The ultimate example of organic food in Europe: the milk dispenser in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a high-tech machine that provides extremely cheap, fresh, local milk. Liter-sized bottles to dispense the milk into are also available for about a euro.

In Europe, organic and all-natural food is readily available and cheap. Even the Walgreens-style drugstore had entire shelves full of all-natural shampoo, soap, and conditioner; at home, I have to visit Natural Grocers or order it online. Not everything is all-natural, but the percentage of food that I could eat was so much higher than in the US.

In addition, and also in direct correlation, to this, weight extremes are a much smaller problem in Europe than in America. Some people were very overweight, and some people were far too skinny, yet I never saw either of the extremes that are fairly common in America. Grocery stores don’t provide electric scooters, and I never saw a girl with such stick-thin legs than I worried she wouldn’t actually be able to walk on them.

The difference isn’t only in what Europeans tend to eat: they also are far more active as a part of their daily routines. In the US, everyone owns a car and drives everywhere; exercise is something we do in the evening or on the weekends in order to “stay fit.” In Europe, people walk to the grocery store and then carry their heavy bags home, and take a bus or train and then walk a few blocks to work. Of course people still lift weights and run in the park and bike on the weekends, but their daily lives are already less sedentary than ours are. This level of constant, non-strenuous activity keeps them extremely fit for their whole lives; I regularly saw tiny 90-year-old ladies slowly but competently make their way through the supermarket and then get on the tram to go home.

After my observations in Europe, I wouldn’t say that either America or Europe is healthier than the other; we simply have focused our negative health habits in different areas. Europeans smoke a ton but are also more active and eat healthier food; Americans are more wary of cigarettes but drive everywhere and eat bright blue cake. Is one better than the other? Maybe not, but by combining both sets of health ideologies, it’s possible to have the best of both health worlds. All we have to do is commit to being truly healthy.

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

The Difference in Health Attitudes Between Europe and the US: Part 1

One of the most difficult things for me to adjust to about living in Austria wasn’t the language or the public transportation or the frustratingly limited opening hours of supermarkets. No, one of the hardest things for me to deal with was the omnipresence of people smoking.

I have always been extremely sensitive to strong smells; even the perfume in most shampoos and hand lotions is too strong and chemically for me to withstand. But cigarette smoke has always been one of the hardest things for me to deal with; I can’t breathe with it nearby, and it gives me an instant, piercing headache.

I had read before that Europe has a higher concentration of heavy smokers than America does, but I didn’t really understand what that would be like until I was in Austria. Cigarettes and smoke were everywhere: every bus and tram stop had a perpetually full ashtray, outdoor seating at restaurants smelled more of smoke than of food, and the entryway to every store was an impossible gauntlet of unbreathable air.

There wasn’t much I could do about any of it, except look for restaurants with non-smoking rooms and practice my shallow breathing skills. That, and silently judge all the people around me who didn’t seem to care that cigarettes are, you know, lethal. At least in America, we have a lot of laws and taxes and educational programs in place to prevent such rampant smoking. At least we care about our health, right?

But then I stopped myself. Yes, cigarettes are terrible and kill people. Yes, from my experience, fewer Americans smoke than Europeans. But Americans aren’t really any more health conscious than our neighbors across the pond; we just focus our health problems in different fields. What are Europeans doing right that we should emulate? See part 2 of my blog post :)

But What About My Visa?

But What About My Visa?

When I was looking into the different German-speaking countries that offered semester study abroad programs through OU, one of the aspects about Austria that appealed to me was that it was a more unusual choice. Even compared to other European countries, Austria is pretty small at 32,000 square miles and a population 8.7 million people; Germany is about 138,000 square miles with 82.6 million people. For further comparison, my home state of Colorado is 104,000 square miles and has a population of 5.5 million people!

Size Comparison(The map shows Europe, with Colorado overlaid for a scale comparison.)

In my experience, most people don’t think of Austria very quickly when they talk about Europe. It’s fairly small and doesn’t have the international fame of the larger countries like Germany, France, Spain, and the UK (which I find ironic, given that it had one of the largest empires in Europe only a century ago). This made it feel more unique and off-the-beaten-path as a study abroad destination, while still allowing me to study in German for a semester.

However, something I never considered was that visiting such a small country might have some drawbacks on the administration side of study abroad. In order to live in Austria for five months, I needed to apply for a visa–no problem, right? Fill out some forms, hand over some cash, and I’d be good to go.

Except that for a visa to Austria, those forms include a fingerprint scan, and therefore the application must be conducted in person at an Austrian embassy or consulate. And since Austria is so small, there are only three such locations in the United States: in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. A visit to one of these cities on such short notice would have been way too expensive and impossible to fit into my school schedule, and a bit of research showed me that I couldn’t apply for a visa once I was in Vienna or Graz, so I started to panic.

Luckily, my Education Abroad counselor informed me of one other option: students from the US and Canada can enter Austria without a visa, and then within their first 90 days in the country, visit an Austrian embassy in either Slovenia or Germany to apply in person for a visa. So in order to stay for a full semester in Graz, I had to take a weekend trip outside of the country to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia!

This ended up being a really fun adventure, since Graz’s branch of the Erasmus Student Network (an organization that arranges fun activities and local student “buddies” for study abroad students all over Europe) put together a trip for everyone who needed to go through this rather convoluted application process. We piled into a tour bus to drive to Ljubljana, where we handed in our paperwork and did the fingerprint scan, and then continued on to Trieste, a coastal town in Italy. Altogether, it only took us three hours of driving, yet by lunchtime we had already spent time in three separate countries!

Although there were some unexpected complications in choosing Austria for my semester abroad, I am so glad that I found a program to suit my unique sense of adventure! Obstacles like applying for a visa actually turned into wonderful opportunities with plenty of support both from the OU Education Abroad counselors and local groups like ESN. Don’t let administrative details dissuade you from finding a study abroad program that fits your interests!

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Why Do I Melt in the Heat When No One Else Does?

Most people have heard the stereotype that Americans dress far more immodestly in the summer than many other cultures around the world. But it wasn’t until I studied abroad in both Japan and Austria that it really hit me how differently our country dresses when the weather turns hot.

For both of my study abroad programs, I packed clothes that were dressier or more fashionable than my typical American college student attire of jeans and a unisex t-shirt. I knew that I wouldn’t always blend in with the locals (especially in Japan, where my red-blone hair was a beacon in any crowd), but I wanted to try as much as I could.

I was successful to some degree, but… Kyoto in July is SO. HOT. And it is humid, every single day. And that was where the real difference came into play, because no matter how much dressier my wardrobe was, I couldn’t compete with the locals who somehow managed to wear nice, more fashionable clothes than me, and also not collapse in the constant, oppressive heat.

Even this felt like so much clothing!I would put on a nice shirt and matching shorts and head out into the day, and immediately feel my face turn bright red (yay for pale Irish skin) and sweat start dripping. As I mentioned in a different post, pretty much everyone carries a sweat towel to wipe their faces off, and I jumped on that bandwagon right away, along with carrying an umbrella for sun protection.

And then I’d get to campus, and notice all the female students and professors walking past looking perfectly put together in a silk blouse, cardigan, skirt, tights, and sun-protective gloves, with no visible signs of distress at all those layers. Men wore suits and button-up shirts and looked similarly unaffected by the heat and humidity, while I just stared in amazement and slowly melted into a little puddle.

winter-attireIn Austria, I ran into a similar problem. When I first arrived in Vienna I was quite proud of my “camouflage” attire: at least half the people on the subway wore jeans, boots, and a grey or black wool coat, just like me. I gave myself a mental high-five at my success, and throughout the semester enjoyed the fact that people would mistake me for a local fairly regularly. Even traveling to other countries in Europe, I continued to blend in (at least, until I had to ask for an English menu) because everyone was wearing wool sweaters and hats and scarves.

And then the weather in Graz started to change, becoming lovely and warm and a bit more humid than I was expecting, and I started shifting to a more spring- and summer-oriented How are you alive?wardrobe. And yet the locals just… kept wearing all those winter layers! It was MAY and 70°F girls were waiting for the tram in knee-length coats and oversized scarves! Which of course left me with an uncomfortable choice: do I reveal myself as an American by wearing actual shorts and tank tops, or do I once again melt into a little puddle as I try to keep wearing jeans and sweaters like everyone around me?

The similarity between my experiences in Japan and Austria is pretty surprising, and makes me wonder: how are people in other countries able to continue wearing so many more layers when the weather gets hot? Do they just have more practice, or is there some deeper reason behind my heat intolerance as an American?

Organic Chemistry in Italy Study Abroad

First, I want to apologize for the lateness of this post. It has been well over two weeks since my summer study abroad program has ended, but this has been the first time that I have had the chance to sit down in front of a laptop for more than 20 minutes. Second, please forgive me for the bluntness, lack of eloquence and thought, and occasional grammar violations contained in the recent previous posts. They were all constrained to very strict criteria and word limits, limits that for the first time in my life I had to struggle to stay within. Now that the program is over and my grades no longer depend on the content and quantity of my posts, I’m now allowed to freely write whatever I want.

Learning Organic Chemistry I in a month in Italy has been one of the most academically challenging opportunity that I have faced and thankfully succeeded at. Even when I was in high school, I already started to hear horror stories about Organic Chemistry from older friends. I heard that ochem was the class that students would get their lowest grade in or how that was the class that made pre-med students change their minds about going to medical school. Even when I was applying for this program, I still had upperclassmen telling me that it was a bad idea to try to learn ochem. After hearing that, I wanted to prove them wrong. The first week was easy; it was mainly a review of general chemistry with some new information thrown in at the end. Each week, it got harder and harder. By the last week, there were so many different types of mechanisms being thrown at us, I would sometimes find myself combining elements of two different mechanisms in attempts to solve a synthesis problem. Every Thursday night, the night before the test, everyone would be sitting in their preferred studying spot. Mine was the second seat from the end of the right side of the right table in the library. I am so grateful that two friends and I started the unofficial Tuesday and Thursday Night Library study group. Whenever one of us had a topic that was still a little bit fuzzy or needed help solving a problem, someone would always be able to help. As the night went on and turned into the early hours of the morning, there would always be a few voiced comments about  “this is hell” or “is it too late to drop the course”. In that moment, it might have felt like all those things, but looking back upon it, I have absolutely no regrets about doing this program and highly suggest other hardworking students to consider it. Learning ochem in a month, covering one week’s worth of material in a day, has taught me how to intensely and efficiently study in a short period of time, shown me just how far my academic boundaries can be pushed, but most of all, it has reaffirmed my belief that hard work and determination will help one succeed. I definitely wasn’t the smartest student in class and organic chemistry didn’t come the easiest to me compared some of the other students, but I put in the time and effort to truly understand all the concepts that were taught and I ended up as one of the top students in the class.

Besides Organic Chemistry (yes, there were other components to the program), I have gained a greater appreciation of the arts through awe-inspiring paintings like the Birth of Venus, majestic sculptures like the David, and ingenious architecture like the fortress of Arezzo. Through the culinary class, I’ve gained more insight on how much science is involved in cooking and every day life. I’ve always assumed it the only science in cooking would be about new bond formation and chemical reactions. The culinary class has taught me that there so much more than that such as pairing the right flavor chemicals together and there is always a scientific reason behind each cooking method. For example, I always assumed that the reason why we add salt into the water when cooking pasta is to lower the boiling temperature. While that is true, another reason is that the salt and starch in the pasta water actually helps the sauce stick to the pasta. Since we live in a such a consumerist society, we often forget about the arduous process behind making common products such as cheese and pasta. Being able to go to these factories and seeing these items be made has reminded me that there is a very laborious process and many people’s lives depend on the sale of these products.

Overall, this program has opened my eyes to so many different aspects of academics and culture. While there is a culture difference, the culture shock wasn’t as large as I expected. Some of the major differences are having to pay for water and bread at a restaurant, not having dryers and air conditioning in typical Italian homes, and crazy Italian driving. This summer has been one of the best summers I have ever had, and if anyone is even thinking about doing this program, do it. Plus, you get to learn a little Italian. Ciao!

Kyoto 6.23.17

My Dearest Friend,

With a month left of my semester and a month and a half until I leave Japan, the end of my time in Japan is drawing close. This semester has flown faster than I could ever have imagined. The month since I last wrote has been a blur of flashcards and readings, trying to keep up with my workload. Now with the end of the semester in sight, my normal work has been supplemented with presentations, exams, and research reports. It will be very difficult to make sure I don’t let my busyness get in the way of enjoying my last few weeks here in Japan.

I did have a break this past week however. Two of my close friends from the States are studying in Asia this summer as well, and they stayed with me in Japan for a few days on their way. It was fun getting to catch up and show someone else the city that I’ve loved living in all year. I also finally visited the Golden Pavilion, Kinkakuji, along with the Ritsumeikan World Peace Museum. It was a relief to have a break from my studies and to explore the city a little more. I also had forgotten just how much I missed my friends from home. So despite being very sorry to leave Japan, I know I’m returning to great friends who love and miss me.

Before I leave I’ll sit down and try to put into words all the things I’ve learned here, but one is already on my mind. Growing up, I loved studying ancient history and civilizations. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Chinese—these groups were so much more interesting to me than politics or modern cultures. It still makes sense to me. I’m a lover of fantasy, so civilizations with their own histories and cultures that were fundamentally removed from me were more interesting to me than the mundane realities of my world. What I didn’t understand until recently is that modern European or Asian countries were no more real to me than their ancient counterparts. I was just as removed from the modern world. Growing up in America, especially living in one city for the majority of my life, everything outside America was either the same as America or didn’t really exist. Even after visiting China last summer, I still didn’t really understand that people live in ways that are fundamentally different than how I always had.

It turns out, I don’t need a car, a dryer for my laundry, or even to be home with my family on every holiday. All of those are good things, but they are not necessary aspects of life. There are also things I always expected to be part of my future that don’t necessarily need to be. I expected my future to be defined by working long hours before coming home to a silent apartment, living out my life in the States. That doesn’t have to be my future. I can travel. I can live in a new country every few years. I can find things I love to do and work to support myself, even if it’s not building a glamorous career. I don’t know what my future holds, but that’s half the fun.

My friend, when I return we will have so much to talk about. I hope you’ll still recognize me. I feel like I’m so different than I was when I left. Honestly, I think I’ve grown into a stronger and more beautiful person. Hopefully you’ll agree. I’ll try to write again once finals are over.

Sincerely,

Kestrel

千里之行,始於足下 (A Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins with a Single Step)

CHINA

I arrived in Beijing the afternoon of February 13, and was met by stinging smog and smothering crowds, two of Beijing’s most distinctive characteristics. I had three things on my mental to-do list that scrolled through my head on repeat: Find a bathroom. Buy a SIM card. Get a taxi. The first was easy; the second proved impossible, after over an hour of searching; and the third was deceptively easy (I later figured out I had been charged about 8 times what I should have for the cab). But I arrived at my hotel complex by late afternoon, and, after wandering around for quite some time trying to find the correct building, I collapsed into my first bed in China.

My first meal in China.

Find food. Since I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, I stepped back out into the gray China dusk, intending to walk towards the main road until I found something to eat. Thankfully, I ran into a little cafe right across the parking lot from my hotel. I sat there a long time, reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child while I ate. It was such a relief to submerge myself in English, my to-do list momentarily empty.

When I started making tomorrow’s to-do list back in my hotel room, though, I lost it. Complete breakdown. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, was completely overcome by loneliness. I was in the largest, most-populated country on earth, and I knew not a soul. I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me or spoke my language in 24 hours, and everyone I loved was asleep half a world away. By the time my parents called soon after, when they woke up and saw my texts, I was just lying on my bed shuddering and gasping. Their comfort and reminder of God’s protection was just what I needed, and when we hung up I went to sleep for a long time.

Armed with mask, I go.

The next morning, I put off leaving my room for as long as possible. The breakdown of the previous night had pushed me a little further away from denial, but inside the room I could still pretend I was wherever I wanted. Outside the room, denial would no longer be an option. Stepping into the hotel hallway and closing the door behind me took a measure of bravery I have rarely used.

Register, find food, buy a SIM card.

The greatest victory of that first day was discovering that I would, in fact, have a place to live for the next four months. After being unable to register for housing on the Peking University housing portal in mid-January, I had tried unsuccessfully for a month to contact PKU about my housing situation. On the PKU campus, after roundaboutedly arriving at the international student office,  the director viewed my online profile with a surprised “What? You haven’t checked into your dorm yet?” Indeed, I had a room!

After registering, I received a list of tasks in addition to my student card. As I was wandering about trying to complete these to-dos, I ran into a group of five or six international students, mostly from Australia, who were on the same mission. Together we checked off a lot of the things on the list, and then we ventured into one of the on-campus canteens (dining halls) for the first time.

After dinner, we had nothing to do, and so we decided the best time to try out the Beijing public transportation system was at 7 p.m. in our group of foreigners with limited English. Continuing in the study-abroad spirit of throwing oneself headfirst into uncertain situations, we descended into the bowels of the Beijing underground and, upon seeing a picture of the Forbidden City at the center of the subway map, decided where to go.

I have to say, after a day and half of feeling quite thwarted by the country I had once anticipated loving, it was very encouraging to visit Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial City), a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. It was a reminder that, despite the challenges of getting used to this new life, everything I looked forward to in China was still waiting for me.

And challenges there were. I won’t bore you with my to-do list every day, but here’s a snapshot: it was the same. Every day. For the first few days, at least. Each day, I would get up and try to complete each task one-by-one, and each day I would hit a new obstacle. Before bed each evening, I would think, “What should I do tomorrow?” And then I would look at my list, and be like, “Oh, same as today, just trying everything I’ve failed at so far, cool.” I learned quickly that everything in China takes four times longer than you think it should, at least for someone unfamiliar with the processes, geography, and language.

Dinner with my new friends

There were many good moments, though! I continued hanging out with the group of people I met that second day, and we added more to our cohort. Little by little, I started crossing things off of my to-do list. By the time Nate arrived a few days later, it felt like I’d been in Beijing for several weeks.

Classic couple-in-Beijing mask selfie

The first weekend, PKU gave the international students a tour of the Forbidden City. Here’s my funnest fact: the bricks laid out on the ground covering the entire palace grounds are the original bricks from when the palace was built. Knowing that I was stepping not just on the same ground, but the same exact bricks, as dynasties of historic Chinese emperors was pretty exciting. The architecture of the Forbidden City was, of course, beautiful.

Tuscany refused to take a photo with this friendly fellow.

 

 

My first week in Beijing was definitely up-and-down, but by the end I had already learned so much about how to live in China.

One of my new friends had her own Tuscany-style travel companion. The two of them became phast phriends: the ‘phant and the phrog at the Phorbidden City. ?

Germany is so much.

I’ve been here for a little more than a week and I feel as though I could ramble on for ages. My first impression of Stuttgart was from above as my plane made its approach in the dark. I couldn’t see much, some lights of course, but not that and very few rose up from the ground. I could have almost mistaken it for a sprawling suburb. This impression carried over into the next day as I hurried after my host family in a sleep-deprived haze while they tried to introduce me to their hometown. Honestly, it wasn’t until several days later when I was given my transit pass and had to navigate the city on my own that I began to comprehend my surroundings. Stuttgart does not have the size and grandeur of New York or Paris or London or Berlin. Nor does it have the quaint medieval architecture that sprawls in various forms through Europe. Stuttgart was severely damaged during the war and as a result, its modern buildings lining the streets reflect the city’s place in Germany and in Europe as the seat of automotive manufacturing. If you look at the Porsche logo you will see in the center a black horse on a yellow background. And just above that, lightly etched: Stuttgart. Stuttgart was built in a valley and once used to raise horses, to prevent enemies from observing the proceedings. Now, Stuttgart fittingly produces horsepower, housing the headquarters of Porsche and Mercedes-Benz flanked by plants for Audi, Bosch, and other car and car part manufacturers. The automotive industry was honestly the first thing I understood here. From the cars on the streets to the logos on jackets and the names on buildings, it was easy to understand the automotive companies provide life to southwest Germany. Rather unfortunate that the first thing I understood wasn’t the transit system or the way restaurants work, but to be fair there is so much to absorb that I scarcely knew where to begin. Which, if you’re wondering, is why I’m writing about cars and not castles. I’ll save the later for next time. ?