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Month: December 2017

Christmas in Europe

Because Europeans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and they’re nearly as consumerist as America, Christmas decorations are up and running as early as can be!

Despite the cynical things I just mentioned, Christmas is a truly magical time to be in Europe. I hadn’t really thought about it coming into GTL for the fall, since I just assumed I’d be celebrating Christmas once I got back to the States, but Christmas is everywhere, and I’ll actually have time to enjoy it before finals set in. I had the luck to go to Milan to visit a friend of mine, and considering the only things to do in Milan are shop, eat and see “The Last Supper,” the window displays were out of this world. Christmas trees lined the streets, there were lights everywhere, and Christmas-based stores were stocked to the brim with ornaments and decorations. It was sunny and nearly 60 degrees, so it didn’t necessarily have that cold wintry feel that made you want to wrap up and sit by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa, but it was cold enough to not feel like global warming was breathing down your neck, which is all I care about.

Metz has wonderful Christmas markets and ice sculptures, and in Strasbourg is one of the biggest Christmas markets in France, just an hour away from Metz. I’ve already heard plenty of students making plans to go searching for family Christmas gifts. There’s a major one in Paris too, of course, which I’m thinking about hitting up after finals. To all GTL students- remember to stay safe and be extra alert while in these Christmas markets! Please and thank you.

The Moment We Decided We’re The Luckiest Humans on Earth

I documented this trip with a lot of detail after it occurred in my spring GTL semester, mostly because it was the most ridiculous, problematic trip, but it also one of the best memories of my life.

St. Moritz in a nutshell is a pretty crazy place. It’s in a valley surrounded by peaks. with a giant snow-covered lake, and it really is just the definition of a magical winter wonderland. The downtown area has only the nicest stores, many fancy car dealers, cashmere – that kind of thing. The neighborhoods around it are so freaking cute. Each house had such a charm to it, so many little details and nice bits. The people are very nice and seem to be able to speak every language on Earth.

Traveling there was a whirlwind from the get-go: almost lost a bag, got separated multiple times, almost missed an important train, but when we got off at our stop, it was snowing so lightly that it felt like a little blessing from the world telling us we had made it. Everything felt worth it. We immediately commenced a snowball fight, right on the train tracks. I am awful at throwing so I wasn’t useful, but it was so carefree and fun. The snow was perfect for snowballs.

Upon arriving to our friend Brando’s family chalet, my good buddy Dom immediately cut his finger on a cigar cutter of course, and it bled for about 16 straight hours. At one point we designed a tourniquet for his finger out of my hairband, and it really wouldn’t stop. Morgan’s parents asked her about his finger every few hours the entire time we were there and afterwards.

Skiing ended up being really tough, but not because of lack of snow: we got waaaay too much. There was nearly zero visibility, and I mean zero – I could see clearly just about 10-20 feet in front of me. After that there was absolutely nothing but snowstorm. Because of this, not only could we not see each other, but we couldn’t see what the terrain was directly under us, and so we basically fell down the mountain. There was so much powder that if you weren’t grazing right over it then you were stuck (who knew too much powder could be a problem). It was so much work just to get back to the mountain cafeteria that we were exhausted, and it had only been half a day. We sat and ate some expensive brats for a bit, and by then it had cleared up a good deal. We could actually almost see the mountain range around us!

After a bit of that I wanted to do some off-trail stuff, so Brando and I went over to this frozen lake and skied down from it. However, before this happened we caused (and by we I mean I) a small avalanche- the steep side of a trail to get down to the lake had about 2 feet of fresh snow on it, and when I skidded to a stop to see Brando below me a whole sheet of snow came off. It was beautiful, but then I realized what was happening and looked down to see Brando being carried down by the snow underneath him. It took all the snow down in that area and we got yelled at by some German dude on the lift. (Sorry man!)

As we came down from the lake it was all powder of course so I fell a decent bit but we made it back to the mountain restaurant fine. We reconvened with the rest of the group, just sitting down when Shan asked me where the GoPro was (I’d had his GoPro on my helmet mount), so I picked up my helmet, and it wasn’t there. My stomach dropped immediately. I had lost a 3 foot long metal pole and couldn’t find it anywhere in the powder that I had fallen into, there was just no way I was going to find this small GoPro. I was already thinking about how I was going to pay for it, but for Shan’s sake Brando and I went back to the lake to look for it. I had done the most strenuous kind of skiing TWICE now, and was starting to really feel the exhaustion set in. We finally got to the part where I tumbled the most, Brando skied down and looked inside and literally just plucked the  GoPro from the mass of snow. It was absolutely ridiculous. Before this point, our friends had kept saying we were invincible because of all the almost-L’s, but when this happened I truly believed it.

Everyone was dumbfounded when we came back with it, and Shan was ecstatic. I nearly cried out of joy; we would’ve lost so much footage. After that day we have always been super extra careful with the GoPro (so no more stupid head mounts)!

Dealing with Homesickness: A Long and Arduous Adventure

First and foremost, I am not one to get homesick. Ever. Yes, usually I’m in Atlanta which is only 5 hours away from Charleston, but a few visits with the family throughout the semester is more than enough to sustain my emotional support/family bonding health points. My 2017 has been very different than normal, though: I was in Europe for both spring and fall semesters while also working in Atlanta over the summer, so the amount of days I’ve seen my family has been quite sparing. I could probably count them on two hands, actually (okay maybe two and a half hands). I myself am also pretty terrible at keeping up with people, and it’s taken some real mental training to fight against this lackadaisical view of reaching out to my loved ones.

I hadn’t been feeling very homesick all year until a few weeks ago when everyone was home for Thanksgiving. My friend sent me a Snapchat of his dog and his wacky grandparents playing in a bluegrass band (I know, too cool), and my stomach nearly fell out. I missed my mom and my grandparents so, so much in that moment. I miss my dog tearing through the house while my grandmother can only hope to catch and cocoon her in a Christmas dog sweater. I miss those late night talks with friends that only happen by chance but last hours into the morning. I’d been missing southern food the whole time, don’t get me wrong, but in that moment I REALLY could’ve gone for a pimento cheese sandwich.

So obviously, talking to your family helps. I will say, though, a Skype call is really at a higher level than a normal phone conversation: you can get distracted by what’s on your screen or by things around you, but on Skype it’s nearly a face-to-face interaction so your attention is naturally all on the other person.

Get you some photos! And don’t have your family send you the same photos that are everywhere in your house: ask to borrow some pictures that are tucked away in family albums from when your parents dressed you up in a Halloween costume for the first time, or just photos of you and your siblings covered in dirt in the backyard. These will remind you of old memories that haven’t crossed the skies of your mind in a while and will make you appreciate your upbringing. Nostalgia is a great thing.

Schoolwork can loom over you and feel like you must hyper-focus to get anything done, but you need breaks! Use those breaks to chill out, of course, but every few breaks use the time to email your grandma or maybe send your dad an article that you’ve seen recently. Don’t shut yourself out or homesickeness is bound to get worse.

Milan: The Only Italian City That Works

The title may be slightly deceptive. You may think I mean Milan is the only city that works for me or is appropriate for travel or something; however, this is the one lesson I learned while in Milan for the weekend: if you are Italian and actually want to do productive work, you go to Milan. I spent my time hanging out with my good friend from my spring semester at GTL and his Milanese friends, and we had many discussions on this subject. Apparently Milan is the most productive place in all of Italy, which surprised me, as Rome is so big, but when you enter the Milano Centrale train station you can definitely see it. Everything – I mean EVERYTHING- is as opulent as can be, and while these guys were brought up to believe Italy, and particularly their home city, prides the highest form of culture, you can only nod your head due to the overwhelming evidence in front of you.

I’m from Charleston, SC (southerners know it well, north/westerners not so much), where downtown is incredibly fashion-oriented. Every young person is looking at every other young person’s outfit, and that’s just the way it is – definitely shallow and judgmental, but can also be creative and inspiring. Milan is like this but on the highest level known to man. Every single person looks like they’re late for an editorial shoot in the newest Vogue magazine. In the seven-story malls just a corner of any store is easily worth more than my semester tuition, but hey, might as well try it on.

I’ve been to Milan twice now, one trip being super touristy and the other was just a one-on-one visit with a friend. Thankfully both times I was able to make it to Luini’s, the most killer panzarotti restaurant of all time (taking my Italian friends word for it). Imagine a bun that tastes kind of like county fair elephant ears, but more savory, and then load it with mozzarella and Serrano ham and whatever other Italian goods you’re craving. It’s so good (and so publicized) that there’s two lines out the door at all times and they’ve hired someone whose job is to literally push you into and out of the store. What a time to be alive.

You’ve gotta see the Last Supper! If you’re in Milan and you want some history and some art and stuff like that then go see that old boy. It’s a classic! I didn’t realize it was a painting on an immobile wall. It’s deteriorated a good bit over time so some parts are more difficult to see, but they light it up all nice to show you the best of it. Keep in mind you need tickets in advance.

The big lively, touristy place to be is the Duomo. The national gallery has all the big fancy stores, and they lead you right up to the cathedral of Milan, with a nice spacious square in front. I still haven’t been inside but I’m sure it’s nice like most European cathedrals.

I will say don’t go to Milan if you’re not into shopping or art history. There are nice parks and other things, but that’s not really what it’s best for. Unless you also have a friend from Milan, in which case you’ll spend the whole time trying not to fall off the back of a moped (but you’ll feel like Lizzie McGuire, which is a hell of a trade).

Canary Islands: Almost Africa

Today I’m going to be talking about my trip to the Canary Islands. The Canary Islands are a Spanish territory off the coast of Morocco, where they are very much geographically Africa, but culturally quite the opposite. I was excited to head to a place with some possible African influence, but was greatly disappointed, as the whole island was either Spanish or British/Slavic/other European descent. It’s a very popular destination for British tourists, being a close tropical vacation experience to their often cold island.

Once I got past this initial shock, we greatly enjoyed the place, even if we were only there for two days. It reminded me a lot of Greece with its rocky cliffs on beautiful clear water, but with the added aspect that it was a volcanic island with black sand beaches and lava fields. This combined with massive black crabs that you could hear anywhere near the rocks made the whole place feel a bit like Jurassic Park or some other-worldly place.

First we went to the volcano responsible for the creation of the island. At first I was confused about exactly what we were driving through, as I recognized the field of rocks to be like Iceland but without the moss, and then I realized we were literally in the volcano itself and were driving to the caldera to see the highest view. Unfortunately the gondola up to the top wasn’t running because the wind was so bad (it was incredibly cold up there too), so we just pulled over somewhere and started to climb up some mountains. Find you some friends that will look at something and say “Hey, let’s climb that.” It’s been the best decision I’ve made in a while.

My favorite thing we did was the Masca Gorge. You drive through tons of windy mountain roads to the tiny town of Masca, which didn’t have any formal roads to it until the 1970’s, deeming it the “lost village” of Tenerife. Now it’s a bit touristy (as is the majority of the island), but we only ran into a few people in the gorge and for the most part had it to ourselves. I love gorges because of the crazy way they work with sound: you can hear little movements of animals from random directions because of the strong echoes created by the gorge. This gorge was particularly cool because of the rock formations on the cliffs, all eroded into holes that you could fit in. Not that we climbed to fit in them – that would be dangerous and totally insane.(But also 100% worth it and I recommend). There were lizards and skinks nearly everywhere you looked, creating a creepy setting at first, but we eventually got used to the constant rustling and it ended up being pretty cute.

After the gorge we went to see Los Gigantes for sunset, a set of massive cliffs dropping off into the water. We swam on the black beach among little neon fish and stared at “The Giants” until sunset. The rock pools in the area eroded into completely perfect half-spheres, in which at lower tides created habitats for hermit crabs, legged-fish and every kind of crustacean known to man. Maybe not lobster, but everything else for sure. All in all. the place was a gorgeous way to end our day.

In retrospect, I didn’t spend nearly enough morrotime in Tenerife. Can’t have it all I suppose – but definitely visit the Canary Islands if you’re looking for something slightly touristy, but also rugged too!

Vlog 8: Switzerland

Vlog 7: Norway

Thanksgiving in Metz!

Turkey Day has come and gone! Thanksgiving always marks that point in the semester in which beforehand you’re like “Oh, I have all the time in the world before finals,” and after break it’s more like “Oh, I have zero time before finals – how did this happen yet again.” Luckily, for one night GTL students were able to put their student worries aside and come together for the GTL Thanksgiving potluck!

If you’ve never been to a GTL Thanksgiving potluck, which most people only ever go once, it’s a grand old time. We rent tables and benches from the Metz town hall, and the BDE, along with a few volunteers, gets to work setting everything up in the GTL lounge. White boards are moved to make way for Christmas lights and tinsel while we put our studies on hold and enjoy the true significant holiday of fall.

Potlucks usually make me nervous (what if no one brings anything), and especially organizing them, but it ended up working out pretty well: yes, there was a lot of pasta and mac & cheese, and maybe even some cereal/milk combos, but some people really went all out with squash and herbs and even a Polish compote. I haven’t had good green beans with herbs and seasoning in waaaaay too long. People with names A-L made main dishes and everyone else made desserts, which also exhibited a wide range – from ice cream and toffee to Oreo fudge balls and Nutella pie. I still dream about that Nutella pie, so if you’re out there reading this, dear baker, then congratulations.

BDE supplied drinks, turkey and a (slightly ominous?) cake, while we set up Charlie Brown’s Thanksgiving/Christmas on the big screen. We busted out the board games, and I personally witnessed and egged on an incredibly competitive game of Uno. It’s all fun and games until someone gets a Swap Hands Wild Card.

All in all, it was a very wholesome night for us hardworking/hard playing GTL students. Props to us all for making it memorable.

 

Also just an added point- we are all thankful for what we have, but there are so many with less and particularly there are individuals whose history is negatively impacted by what has grown into the national holiday of Thanksgiving! If you want to do something extra cool this giving season then donate to a charity that helps impoverished Native American communities!

Vlog 6: Cinque Terre

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